April 28, 2013

Learning from the Yoruba

Someday I’ll make a vessel like that, I said to myself when I saw in the Charolotte Museum these beautiful Yoruba pots embellished with rope designs. They were pit-fired black ware and burnished to a smooth finish. I liked the way the forms were encircled by a ropes, most likely fashioned in a sprig mold.

So some time later, I took various pieces of twine, rope, metal and bamboo and made plaster casts of them. The casts sat in my basement unused for about three years. But this month, for my pit firing, I finally set myself the task of making a flask form encircled with a rope design.

When I got to the application of the terra sigillata, I decided to leave the brush strokes instead of smoothing them out. This created a mottled effect upon burnishing - almost as if the color on the vessel were drawn on by a color pencil. The smoke firing made a nice design, I think.

The flask, like the rest of the vessels in the pit firing, is a functioning ocarina. With only six holes it plays a limited scale but has a very nice mellow tone.

April 20, 2013

Shark Teeth Sounds

Some of my favorite items to come out of my pit firing are my ocarinas made out of the molds I made of prehistoric shark’s teeth. As a child, my husband collected shark’s teeth from what is now Parkdale subdivision in Charleston, SC. They were fairly large - up to five inches in length, but generally not fragmentary. So before making the plaster molds of these, I filled in the gaps of the shark’s teeth with plasticine clay, trying to mimic the shark tooth texture and shape as I went along. So I guess one could say that these shark’s teeth came from both the Miocene as well as the plasticine era.

For these shark teeth ocarinas, I kept one side with the texture of the original tooth, then added a smoother top on the reverse side from which to hollow out the finger holes. I’ve pictured both sides for comparison. Some teeth were burnished straight on the clay body before firing and others have three coats of terra sigillata on them - like the white one. The white one has the best sound. At some point, I’ll upload a sound video so it can be heard.

April 18, 2013

Pit Firing Days

There is nothing quite like the anticipation of opening a pit fired kiln. The fire and smoke does
what it wants to do with no input from the artist, save deciding when to smother the fire and where to vent. The designs are spontaneous. Just days ago the kiln was opened and I am slowly cleaning and polishing the instruments. The one featured above is a ten hole ocarina - a sculpture that sings! Instead of applying the usual terra sigilata surface on this one, I just burnished the raw stoneware clay. The effects are stunning in pinks, blacks and cream colored patches.

For my last pit firing I tried for a second time to smother the fire with Spanish moss instead of the traditional manure. Once again, the effects were much better with the former instead of the latter. I did have to fire some of the smaller pieces, like the one at right, over again because the Spanish moss so effectively squashed the fire the pieces on the lower shelves did not get burned.
Letting the Spanish moss grow from the trees is a Southern tradition.  So is burning garbage in your back yard if you live in Orangeburg, South Carolina.  I just happened to burn my pottery on what appeared to be backyard burning day so I fit right in.

I will continue to post the results of my smokey back yard as they are photographed.

April 12, 2013

Pig Willy Musgrave: A Neo-Victorian Tale

I have a critical mind for Victorian values but a soft heart for some aspects of Victorian art and literature. My mind appreciates the spareness of Zen painting and philosophy yet I find myself viscerally attracted to the overdone decoration of such things as Victorian lace or those incredibly intricate Victorian Valentines I discovered this past February.

Although stories and illustrations for children in the Victorian age have their attractions, the Victorian values for child rearing seem alien from a twenty- first century perspective. Ditto on the nineteenth century views of nature. This was borne home to me on a visit to the British Museum Library one summer. Although Puss In Boots and Peter Rabbit are charming, the instruction books for children known as “Cautionary Tales,” are perplexing to say the least. Richly illustrated with animals dressed in knickers and hats who preside over children with body parts damaged from doing what they should not have, one could easily accuse the Victorian sensibility here as “overkill.” My favorite book for naughty children was one in which the end of every naughty deed gone punished was greeted with an illustration of a chorus of anthropomorphic cats standing on their hind legs with their paws raised in the air. I believe they wore outfits of plaid. Although I don’t have the text in front of me, I recall that their song went something like, “Meow, Meow, Mio, Mio. They shouldn’t have done it. We told them so!”

The Victorian relationship to the animal world was a curious one indeed. Domestic animals were good because they could be dressed up as little furry people. Wild animals were  even better because their heads could become interior decoration. It was an odd mixture of veneration for nature with disregard for animal autonomy. This point was made clear to me by a second object in the British Museum housed in a room full of Victorian era jewelry. I first spotted it from across the room. It was a necklace with gold filigree entwined around rectangular jewels. I could not imagine what jewels had such an iridescent quality. They glittered like neon lights. The object drew me closer and closer. Some rectangles were glowing green, others red. They caught the light and dispersed it like some unusual bioluminescent thing. When I was finally face to face with the necklace (or should I say head to head?) It became appallingly clear what I was looking at. The “gems” in the necklace were encased hummingbird heads! Mortified, I slowly backed away and out the door to an adjacent gallery which featured baubles that were not of zoological origins.

My quick retreat from the hummingbird necklace was marked by ruminations on what possible sentiments could have caused someone to commission a Victorian jeweler to even consider severed birds heads as part of an ensemble that would grace the neck of a well-dressed lady. What was that line of reasoning. Perhaps the nineteenth century sentiments went something like this:
“Hummingbirds are such wondrous works of nature. Their gentle hum soothes my soul. Their tiny feathers glisten like a thousand beads of precious gems stones. Would not their heads be sublime in my lady’s necklace?”

At some point, I’ll illustrate the hummingbird story with a painting that offers restitution to the souls of hapless birds. In the mean time, I put aside this truly misguided veneration of nature and turn to the gentler anthropomorphic animal literature of the nineteenth century. I’ve had a go with this style and have come up with an illustrated attenuated tale told in a somewhat sardonic imitation of Victorian children’s literature. The central character is a suitably coiffed pig in human clothes with a first, middle and last name, Pig Willy Musgrave, for whom the story is so named. There is no cautionary tale involved other than to keep one’s cat fed. Enjoy the story for the illustration.

THE TALE OF PIG WILLY MUSGRAVE: A Neo-Victorian Story of a Sleepy Pig

Late one summer evening, Pig Willy Musgrave sat down to sup on leg of lamb, yellow squash, mashed potatoes, and a mountain of good fig pudding. Tired in his head and fully satisfied in his belly, he fell into a deep and dreamless slumber under the light of a pale blue moon shining through his kitchen window.

Wee Pussy Kitkins was driven to great consternation, as Pig Willy had not fed him that evening. Wee Pussy meowed and meowed for his dinner but Pig Willy would not stir from his sleep. But the window was open a good crack so Wee Pussy crept through and climbed down a trellis into Pig Willy’s garden. There he harvested a trumpet flower with his needle white teeth. Then back up the trellis he climbed. Wee Pussy slid his furry self easily through the window and down onto Pig Willy. He stood with his little white legs on Pig Willy’s shoulder and stuck the trumpet flower into Pig Willy’s ear. Now he meowed and meowed again into the trumpet flower to be certain that Pig Willy would hear his cries. Just as Wee Pussy expected, Pig Willy stirred a little and began to open one eye slightly. Wee Pussy purred as he saw the coal black jewel shining under Pig Willy’s heavy lid.

April 11, 2013

Dreaming of Better Outfits: A Mosaic for Verner

The annual Verner Award Art Auction and Gala is approaching. This year selected artists have been asked to submit three works for the exhibition. As a participating artist, I’ve made my three selections, dutifully making one work over a thousand dollars and two works under a thousand. I’ve chosen one moderately priced painting, one expensive mosaic, and one inexpensive mosaic/painting combination.   Good for balance.

The elaborate mosaic pictured above is my assemblage of ceramic relief sculpture with a mixed media mosaic background called “Dreaming of Better Outfits.” The sleeping, or dreaming, figure in the lower left dons a simple white dress with green markings. The dream outfits are hand sculpted out of white earthenware clay, painted in underglaze colors, then decorated with overglaze enamels - two firings in all. The outfits are: party outfit, business suit, maternity dress, and wedding gown. The wedding gown detail is depicted at right.

Hopefully this piece is as provocative as it is entertainingly decorative. Are the outfits the dreamer’s aspirations to a better state of being? Are they “better” for the dreaming woman or are they thought to be “better” as representing roles defined by the society in which the woman lives and works?

April 4, 2013

Entry Number 2100

I was on the phone with the archive librarian at the National Museum of Women in the Arts talking about my digital archive and catalogue of my work. My intention was to put the whole thing on a jump drive and send it to them. At the time the entries stood at well over 2000, but having a passion for even numbers, I told the librarian that I had 2100 entries in the catalogue.
It took some weeks after that phone call to finish entry number 2100 but I did and the catalogue has been sent off to Washington DC.

Entry number 2100 is pictured to the right. It is a completed drawing of a sketch made from a life study of a young girl in an interior with two dogs. The sketch was the basis for the painting and the poem “The Yellow Dog,” finished in 2008. The drawing is 9" x 12,” larger than the original 9" x 9" sketch and painting. This time, instead of adding more details in the extra space, I kept the background somewhat spare, which, I think, serves to emphasize the smallness of the young girl. The details on the rug is an alteration of an Asian pattern. I added a small arc between the arms of the tiny sculpture on the floor behind the rug which can be interpreted as a serpent held up above the figure’s head - an allusion to the sketch having begun in the year of the snake and to archaic goddesses who hold up snakes.

Despite my goal of having an official life’s work catalogue and archive of 2100 works of art, I’m still continuing to make drawings and ceramic sculpture these days. If I get to 2200, I’ll just make a new jump drive and send that off to DC to replace the old one.

April 1, 2013

Babinski's and Other Signs of the Foot

“Our brains are dulled by the incurable mania of wanting to make the unknown known, classifiable...” Andre Breton

My reading of the works of Balzac have taken a back seat to my informal study of neurology. I recalled from my previous experience with a serious illness that it took twenty years to get an appropriate diagnosis. This came only after studying the illness through medical texts, then finding a practitioner who understood the symptoms as well as the appropriate diagnostic tests. So I’ve signed up for battle number two through careful study but wishing that this time I had the stamina to go a little faster.

The text I am reading, Brain’s Diseases of the Nervous System, by Donaghy, is a classic text now in its twelfth edition. I’m finding it fascinating and almost as worthy reading as Balzac. The history section is especially intriguing and features many illustrious neurologists with apt names like Dr. Russel Brain.

I’ve finally reached the section on reflexes. Reflexes, as it appears in Donaghy’s text, are legion, with each one registering an affect from a specific part of the brain or spinal chord. These long distance messages carry the clues of wellness or disease. What was disconcerting about this chapter was that many of the clinical evidence of illness through reflexes often did not dovetail with my own experience. I am guessing that much of this is due to the dependence on increasingly sensitive technological advances that may be making reading reflex signs something of a lost art form.

To give an example, I recall a clinician scraping the bottom of my foot in a center line from the heel and stopping abruptly at the ball of the foot. Later, I read in the Donaghy text a description of a test for Babinski’s Sign. This test is performed by moving a stick along the soul of the foot but almost at the outside edge, then quickly moving this stick horizontally across the ball of the foot in a shape like an upside down and backwards “L.” “So that was what the doctor was trying to do,” I thought.  Far be it for me to go back to the man and tell him "Backwards upside down L, not lower case l."

Babinski’s sign is so named for Joseph Babinski, a French neurologist of Polish descent active in the latter part of the nineteenth century and early twentieth. The name Babinski reminded me of the name of a friend of my Ukranian grandmother’s, Anna Babinka. Babinski’s sign is a reflex in response to the above mentioned stimulus which causes the small toe to spread outward and the large toe to go upwards. (A normal reflex is to point downward). This reflex is not to be confused, then, with Babinka’s sign, which would involve lifting both hands suddenly upwards at the elbow, palms outward, and exclaiming “Oi!.”

I’ve illustrated my readings about reflexes in the foot with my mixed media mosaic of a footprint filled with prints of “signs.” I made this by stepping into wet clay, then pushing stone seals with ancient writing on them into the footprint. Very clever, I thought, except that the words are in such an ancient language that all but a few historians will be able to read them. I’ll translate the most hopeful sign; “Long life and eternal joy,” it says. The others signs make reference to health and wellness. Let us all hope that there are more neurologists out there who know how to read reflexes accurately than there are historians who can read these prints of ancient language on my footprint.