May 31, 2013

Cycladic Sculpture, Hercules, and a Bronze Mask from Germany

On a page from my travel notebooks of years past there was a sketch of a Cycladic sculpture with another smaller sketch of Hercules battling the lion in the upper right corner of the page. On another page were sketches of medieval jewelry with a German bronze mask from the middle ages. I know that these were German because my notes on that page were in German. These three sketches formed the basis for my newly completed drawing. The detail with the mask is above and the entire picture to the left.

I’ve always been fond of compositions that include arches and this drawing is no exception. Arches serve to encapsulate forms so well - especially when a drawing such as this one incorporates so many invented details. This time I used the arch twice - once around the Cycladic figure and once again around the Hercules.

The Hercules and lion sketch was the basis for a number of miniature paintings, all of which are now in private collections. So once again, the sketch has served its purpose and is now retired from service. Hercules is now retired from his service to painting because I no longer wish to paint him. He is also retired now, like the rest of the subject of sketches turned complete drawings because once these sketches become finished drawings, it is not worth the risk to be sloshing paint around them.

I’m featuring the detail from my drawing this time because my digital camera seems to pick up too much glare from the sheen off the pencils. Scanned small drawings and details of larger ones are better for now until I figure out a way to cut the glare. Or perhaps the larger drawings should all be charcoals and pastels to get around the problem? Strange how technical concerns can dictate how one does art work.

May 30, 2013

More Patterns

At Eleven by Fourteen inches, my latest drawing of a woman seated among several patterned pieces of textiles took a long time to complete. It is done with a variety of pencils and graphite with a plethora of small textural details. The background is based upon Japanese papers and tatami weaving. The draperies were entirely invented. Because these details are so busy, I left the center of the composition unpatterned as a rest for the eyes before moving to the next detailed area.

May 29, 2013

Degas Plus One

In my previous post, Cezanne Plus One, I discussed an altered sketch I made from a small Cezanne painting of bathers. Turning my notebook page to another sketch made in the same museum, I found another opportunity for revision and completion. The sketch was a series of Degas studies of dancers cast in bronze. They didn’t quite fill the page with this obvious blank area in the lower right. To fill the hole I used a study I had made myself of a young dancer. The background was then filled in with frenetic pastel and charcoal marks, making this one of my more wild and wooly works.

May 28, 2013

Cezanne Plus One

I had made a sketch of a small Cezanne painting of bathers while at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. At least I think that was the museum - it was quite some time ago and I didn’t note the location in my sketchbook. Regardless of the source, this sketch has now become the next one to alter and save as I go through my drawings from travels past and cull the usable ones from those that I will discard.

Since pragmatism rules the day for me, I cut my little Cezanne sketch out of my notebook leaving an 8" x 10" space so that it would fit a standard size matt. This, of course, left blank spaces around the composition for me to creatively fill in. So as I worked over the original conte crayon sketch with my velvety gray and black pastels I added an extra cypress tree and other extensions of an imagined landscape. As I worked, the angular and cubed nature of the Cezanne bathers receded and became increasingly rounded and sinuous until the drawing bore little resemblance to Cezanne. Might I now claim it as a Kozachek derivative of a Cezanne?

May 26, 2013

Drawing on Touch

Some years ago, I saw an exhibition of Persian miniatures at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. Some of these were placed under a magnifying glass so viewers could see details otherwise not visible to the naked eye. How, I wondered, could these artists create intricate patterns smaller than they could actually see? Later I asked a doctor that question and he told me that the sense of touch is more finely tuned than eyesight so that it could be possible that miniature artists would create details not entirely visible by sight.

My own eyesight is still pretty good for an older lady, but certainly not what it used to be. The drawing I do now I do with the aid of reading glasses. Some of these, like the one pictured to the right, have very small detailed patterns. And I do sense that I’m relying more on fine motor coordination than sight to create them. In my featured drawing today that I call The Virgin of the Doors, the background is rich with these details. Curious to see how these details would hold up under magnification, I scanned and enlarged a one inch by two inch section from the upper right corner of the drawing. This is the enlargement at the top of the page. The details look a little furry at about ten times the original size but they are there and in the right places. Not as fine as a Persian miniature but certainly feeling like one.

I made a number of paintings from my original sketch of the Virgin of the Doors, which was adapted from a small oil on wood Italian icon. I’ve retained one of these paintings. The rest have found homes in various parts of the country. My sketch turned miniature drawing is now retired from service and in a nice binder.

May 25, 2013

Duck, Duck, Duck, Duck, Goose

Santa Maria in Trastevere. That beautiful church in Rome was packed full of remarkable treasures; mostly mosaics and the Cavallini frescoes. When I visited the church some years ago, I recall how majestic the mosaics were - Jesus tending his flock. There was a line of sheep each one with a different pattern to his wool coat. The tesserae of the mosaics were set into the cement in the direct method at slightly different angles. This caused the colors to glisten and change hue depending upon how the light hit them. When I put my lire into the light box to bring the mosaic into a spotlight I was so moved by the sublime beauty that it brought tears to my eyes.

A guard seemed to be duly impressed by my artistic/religious epiphany that he invited me to look at a smaller mosaic around the corner that was hidden behind a glass door. This mosaic was a square Roman emblem depicting ducks and a goose in a water scene. The tesserae were mostly stone but possibly some vitreous glass as well as the blues and greens were so vivid. To my surprise the guard who led me to the spot opened the glass door and told me to put my hands on it to feel the tesserae. I’m sure this was not standard operating procedures for tourists but I did so, grateful that I could touch what a Roman artist from antiquity had touched. I remained for a while at the site making a sketch of this mosaic.

A few days ago I revisited my sketch, and, revising history again, decided to make the sketch into a detailed drawing (I have a postcard of the original mosaic as a guide should I wish to consult it). Even though the mosaic was square, once again I decided to use the whole long page and create details at the top and bottom. I used small decorative lines and details so that the mosaic became a tapestry of patterns. Or perhaps it is more like a pottery design. It is an amalgam of sorts: past, present, decoration and documentation.

May 21, 2013

Spirits in the Trees

I heard a story that my Ukranian grandmother would take a month off from her farm duties once a year to sit with her friend Anna Babinka underneath her large fruit trees to watch the spirits fly out from the limbs and leaves. I don’t know whether they were simply passive
observers or there was an active shamanistic tree exorcism involved. Either way it conjures up some interesting images.

I thought of this story once more when I completed a sketch that I did in the Ukraine of an old woman sitting underneath trees. The old woman was actually vending fruit by the roadside and not observing the trees, but I decided to pay homage to my grandmother’s annual ritual and draw spirits amongst these trees. The creatures that are floating or flying around in the trees were taken largely from images of the same that I saw in a local museum in Zaparoze, a small town in the Eastern Ukraine where we were staying with my father’s cousin. The drawing is in charcoal with highlights and shadows in grey, white and black pastels. I made the spirits diaphanous, in keeping with their ethereal nature.

May 19, 2013

Mother's Day

Now that ocarinas are polished and tuned, and my paper mosaics are brightened and pressed, I’ve turned once again to drawing for a while. I just finished a drawing of a mother and child in time for Mother’s Day. This is in my highly detailed miniature style. I used a variety of pencils for a range of tonalities.

Today is a good day to reflect upon my mothers and what they meant to me. I say mothers because I was blessed with two mothers: who shaped my formative years, and my mother-in-law, who was my mentor, dear friend and second mother throughout the greater part of my adult life. My mother-in-law always referred to me as her second daughter - an honor indeed. I am a motherless child now, but grateful for the years of motherly companionship that I had.

May 17, 2013

Fresh, Dressed, and Put to Rest: A Faux Pique Assiette Mosaic

When I taught mosaics, in addition to demonstrating on my perpetually incomplete matt board mosaics, I used completed ones as well to illustrate various mosaic techniques such a commesso, sectile, and pique assiette. Pique Assiette, so named for the 1930's Maison Pique Assiette (home of the plate stealer), refers to mosaic that predominantly uses broken pottery shards. Sometimes these incorporated whole tile or plate designs that were broken and then reassembled into a recognizable whole - leaving the break lines, or interstices, to be grouted. The pique assiette mosaic pictured above makes use of such a reassembled image. But since it was something I lugged around from school to school for thousands of kids to handle, it was made with matt board instead of real tiles. Here what I did was make a color photocopy of a tile I had designed then pasted the photocopy on to a piece of matt board. This was then cut on a paper cutter and reassembled as the center medallion of the piece. The surrounding tesserae were also created in a cheap and easy way by pasting wall paper samples to matt board then cutting that into haphazard pieces. The same was used in the corners of the piece.

Making this mosaic more archival and dressed up took some doing. I first made a painting over the photocopy of the grasshopper tile- making it now a “real”art work. I then carefully peeled off all the wall paper - which was peeling off anyway. The now bare matt board was resurfaced with gesso and faux finished in acrylic to look like tile and stone. After coating the whole piece with acrylic varnish to make it slick, I then used various color paints to grout with. Yellow around the center, green in the circular areas and cementitious looking mica in the middle.

This is the last of my paper mosaic renovations. They are now all pressed, dressed and put to rest.

May 16, 2013

Fresh Face

For my second paper mosaic revitalization, I chose the decorated face that I gleaned from a line drawing by Mattisse. Once again, the face was freshened by painting a new surface on each tessera. Tedious, but the new colors were more vibrant and varied. I had used a combination of paper matt board and foils in this piece that were of different widths so grouting this time was not a good option. But the background color seems to suffice.

May 15, 2013

Retired Demonstrators Made Fresh Mosaics

When I was teaching mosaics in the South Carolina Arts In Education Program I had prepared a number of demonstrator mosaics made from color pieces of matt board mounted on to a matt board base. They were never finished because that was not the point. I would carry them from job to job and use them to demonstrate cutting and application techniques. Finishing them would have meant having to make new models for the next job.

Now that I have concluded teaching mosaics in the public school system I have decided to retire these demonstrator mosaics by bringing them to a conclusion as well. This required some initial repair work followed by using more stabilizing archival materials to finish the works. The colors of commercial matt board used for picture framing (what I used in the mosaics for classroom teaching as it could be acquired for nothing) was often fugitive as well as monochromatic and not terribly interesting. So in order to complete the cat mosaic posted above, I first made a new supply of tesserae with acrylic paint over gesso on matt board. I faux finished the acrylic paints and added mica textures to give them a stony appearance. I then painted over, rather tediously, all of the existing pieces on the original work to match the replacement tesserae.. I used archival glues this time to adhere the tesserae to the remaining blank areas, feeling a burst of satisfaction as that last little space was filled up. After everything dried, I gave the mosaic several coats of an acrylic varnish to bring out the colors as well as add a hard, slick surface that I could grout like a stone or glass mosaic. For the grout I used different colorants added to an acrylic mica mortar for each section grouted. The mica gave the impression of a cement base and was easily wiped off the surface. Overall, I’m pleased with the effect although the flickering shine of the mica looks better in person.   And now cat is here for keeps instead of half done in a box.

May 13, 2013

Secret to Great Sound in Small Ocarinas

When I studied ceramics with Native Americans, I learned that most of their tools were simple, non-commercial common objects. These would include rags, tin cans, sticks and yucca leaves to name a few. This may have in part sprung from a need to economize - in decades past Native American ceramics was grossly undervalued. It could also be the pragmatism of using what is readily and cheaply available, finding it just as efficient, and often more so, than a mass produced tool.

I still used plenty of commercial tools when making my ceramic vessels and musical instruments, but my brush with Native American tool autonomy keeps me on the lookout for the common object that might be just the right tool.

The right tool for making the narrow slit in the mouthpiece of an ocarina and punching it through to the sound hole would be a fettling knife. A cheaper, but still commonly used commercial tool is the simple popsicle stick. Both had disadvantages for me. The popsicle stick I found to be too thick - making an opening so wide that too much air is expended blowing into it, making extended long notes or arpeggios difficult if not impossible. A commercial fettling knife has some advantages here for making a narrow air passage, but is too large for very small ocarinas and whistles. The solution to the perfect fipple maker (mouthpiece of the ocarina) turned out not to be in a store but in my lowly kitchen. Just as my Native American friends told me, I didn’t have to look very far for an answer to my creative needs. It turned out that the plastic tie that hooks around the covering of a loaf of bread to keep it shut was just the right length and width or making finishing off the mouthpiece of the ocarina. They were soft enough to cut any size any shape from moderate size ocarinas to very small whistles. The mouthpieces of the ocarinas I’ve featured above and and right were finished with custom plastic fettling knives shaped from these pieces of plastic - the two-inch pieces work the best. The small ocarina pictured at right is quite little at just two and a half inches high but plays a full octave with a large sound.

May 12, 2013

Two Steatopygous Women

I made a sketch of an ancient stone statue of a steatopygous woman that I had chanced upon in a museum. I recall that she was from ancient Crete. I drew her once, then once again on the same page. Why two incomplete drawings? Because there was extra space on the paper? Or perhaps just because I was not satisfied with the contours of my first attempt so made a second. In either case a solitary female goddess became a pair.

While making revisions to this sketch I decided to compete each figure differently. The first one I treated like a painted piece of ceramic, with a decorated doll-like face and body. As I turned to her companion, I completed her form with an overall dark texture. The effect I was going for was a more tactile one - like a raffia draped object to be touched and held. To emphasize her corporeal form I left out facial features. Her hips were larger than those of her companion and her feet decidedly stumpier as well. She was earth. Fertility. Primordial and universal. By contrast, her friend represented the cultural, sporting the face of civilization.

May 9, 2013

From Broke to Baroque: Dolly Parton's Ocarina

For my last pit firing I had created a large bass ocarina from red stoneware clay that I had placed in a mold made from a large river rock. I liked the smooth abstract shape - like a Brancusi sculpture. This ocarina was pieced together in two parts which unfortunately separated in the greenware stage right after I had carefully burnished the surface with rose colored terra
     But since the separation did not affect the mouthpiece I decided to put the two parts back together and route out a grove along the seam line for an inlay. The piece was bisqued at a low temperature then smoke fired in the pit for a subtle surface design. The smoke pattern on this piece turned out well so I glued the two pieces back together and was pleased to find that the ocarina still played - although a bit on the quiet side. Using sand paper and my handy dremel, I evened out and widened the inlay grove and set to work with my inlay. I made a lavish inlay consisting of fresh-water pearls, green stone, gilded glass and glass beads. Not content with that, I riveted out a few more holes and added some pearl cabachons on the surface.
    Rather than use the usual grout - way too plain for pearls - I used irridescent and pearlized acrylic paint, mixing with mica mortars and potter’s pink for the exterior edges. After polishing the ocarina with butcher’s wax and buffing to a satin sheen I set it on my mantel to admire it. A friend who was visiting admired it as well, dubbing the vessel “Dolly Parton’s Ocarina,” for its flamboyant feminity.

May 8, 2013

Old Friend First Ocarina

When I first started making ocarinas, they were basically art objects that could make a sound or two. As a visual artist, the embellished, painted surfaces were what I emphasized. Most of these early ocarinas were pinch pots put together, scraped then sanded to a smooth surface for painting with underglaze colors.

My very first ocarina, pictured above, was a thick-walled vessel that made a rather pressured, whining sound - I optimistically imagined it to be lilting. Since the holes were arranged in a straight line along the top surface of the vessel, it doubled as a water whistle. Filled with water and slowly swirled then emptied as I blew air through it, it created a sound reminiscent of a loon. This was quite apropos for the abstract bird design that I had painted on the surface with underglaze pigments and overglaze 24K gold enameling.

As time went by, as I became thinner skinned about foggy, vague and limited sounds, my
vessels became thinner walled and, with the help of a chromatic tuner, adjusted to chromatic scales and increased range. But lately I have been revisiting some of the older ocarinas and adjusting them with sanding and the use of a dremel to clarify and expand sounds. As an experiment on my first ocarina, I thought that I would relieve some of the pressure of the thick walls by drilling out a horn shape on the end opposite the mouthpiece. I suppose that technically this makes this piece now more of a horn than an ocarina but at least it would add color and volume to the sound. Of course this meant it would no longer be a water whistle - but I can always make more and better water whistles.

I had only a small dremel and this old ocarina was a lot thicker-walled than I had anticipated. As a consequence it took some time to bore out and shape the hole. And then it left this white bare clay hole. What to do? I just happened to have enough metal leaf to decorate this exit and the coloring seemed to match the exterior gilding well. So now my retrograde ocarina has been upgraded.

May 1, 2013

Madonna of the Burning Embers

So what does an artist do when waiting for art work to dry, or for pots to burn in a pit? Make more art work of course. But while my pots were smoking away, I decided to end my run of ocarina making for now - the pit firing took too much out of my now frail body - and turn back to drawing. I did the relaxing and easy thing once more by coloring on top of a previously executed sketch of a relief sculpture of a Madonna and Child. The original sketch was made in conte crayon. On top of that I used water soluble pastels for a watercolor effect. This naturally made the paper curl so I had to flatten it down with weights for a while before adding the final layer of soft pastels. While waiting for the drawing to flatten I discovered how to use a dremel to route out some ocarinas for fine tuning - but more about that later.

Whether it was the inspiration of the pit firing or being in a warm mood, when adding the final layer of soft pastels to my Madonna and Child I choose to make a halo the color of burning embers. I now call this work Madonna of the Embers. Strange to associate such a watery or celestial being such as the Virgin Mary with Fire. A halo of embers seems more akin to eastern gods and goddesses and I was perhaps influenced by those. Either way she served well to preside over expectations of the forms and music that would come from the smoke and flames.