August 31, 2013

Remembering "Remembering New York"

In my ongoing project of revising and completing drawings from my notebooks, I came across the sketch I made that became two versions of the painting “Remembering New York.” One of these paintings ended up in the collection of the late Mark Coplan and the other is in a private collection in New Jersey. The painting in the New Jersey collection was an improvement over the one in the Coplan collection, I believe, so posted that at right. The painting was special in that it was the very first in a series of over a hundred 8" and 9" square figurative works that were later part of my four part poetry book, Moments in Light and Shadows. The poem that accompanied that painting is attached as well.

When finishing these drawings, I’ve had to first decide on the media and whether or not to leave it black and white, which I usually do, or experiment with colors. In large part, the choice of medium has been a largely pragmatic concern. Pencil sketches could become more detailed pencil drawings. Charcoal and conte’s had to be revised in the same medium but could sometimes include an overlay of color. Lightly sketched pencils could become just about anything else. One determinant of medium was the condition of the original drawing. Since I used them as material for paintings, there were sometimes small spots of paint or oil on the surface. These had to be scraped down if they were superficial (thrown away if they were not) and the drawing then finished with thick coats of pastels to hid the patches. I wanted to complete the sketch for “Remembering New York,” as a detailed pencil drawing, but alas! There was a small spot not far from the figure which had to be disguised with heavier materials. So the spiritual drawing of the woman with her back turned to face the window to New York became a charcoal and pastel drawing. The poem:

Impassive walls of the City

In grey-pink rectangular light

Ghosts of Abstract Expressionists

Define the boundaries of a hard-edged puzzle

Pulling towards the memory of tales untold

While time pushes sentiment away

August 30, 2013

Life and Death in a Zapotec Mask

My series of ten small mosaics completed, I’ve turned once again to the art of making detailed drawings. The complete collection of small mosaics is posted on my web site: . To avoid redundancy, I’ve changed the expository remarks on the mosaics that have already been featured on this blog, adding some educational details.

My newly completed drawing is of Pre-Columbian Artifacts that I’ve studied in various museums - a Zapotec mask and some Olmec figures. The bird head and the squatting monkey-like figure below that are from my imagination albeit influenced by previously observed Chinese antiquities. The bird head is reminiscent of ancient Chinese jades and the squatting figure is similar to the encapsulated animal and plant forms found in Han dynasty bronzes.

The most powerful form in the composition is the Zapotec mask. One could say by way of comparison with western art that it is the Pre-Columbian equivalent of a vanitas figure, although this would not be an entirely apt analogy. The vanitas symbol in western art generally consisted of a complete skull or skeleton included in the picture to remind us of the ephemeral nature of life and hence the folly of clinging to the vanities of life that will change and expire. In this respect the vanitas is more didactic in nature than the spiritual dimensions of the Zapotec mask. In the mask death is not a finality but a continuity with and part of existence. These masks are usually thus depicted as devided equally between a formed face and a face transmuted into the realm of the “fleshless,” as the afterlife was called. There is a sense of exchange between the two spheres - the land of the dead and the living coexisting and even co-mingling. Death in the Zapotec mask is about transformation rather than cessation.

The scrolling designs in the background of the drawing are gleaned from my studies of such forms in Pre-Columbian art, particularly Mayan art. They may be more than just decorative. These winding pathways are believed by some to indicate sound and movement. To me they feel like meandering pathways such as those found in Chinese gardens - winding to coincide with the life force of “qi.”

The background undulations took some time to create as I have been inserting tiny systems of dots and lines along the edges and interiors to underscore the concept of something living and singing within the forms. A lot of life for a death mask.

August 28, 2013

The Gift of Poetry

This is the second small mosaic I made recently featuring miniature clay tiles with imprints of Chinese zhuan character seals. The center tile reads “The gift.” The small tile on top of that reads “Poetry.” Hence - the gift of poetry. The large center tile was originally intended as a focal pendant but I stole it back from my tray of jewelry baubles to make a different statement. The carved hole at the top that would have been used to wrap wire or thread a cord through is now filled with cement and small seed pearls. The background of this piece is formed from several pieces of grey flint. This is the reverse side of the milky white and caramel color flint that I used previously on the zen tile mosaic. Because the flint is uneven, a piece like this is best left ungrouted

Most of these miniature mosaics fit some five by seven inch frames that I had on hand. But this one is one of the left over five by six inch pieces. So although I was trying to not spend anything more to create these small mosaics I have to spring for some more molding to customize frames for the smaller than standard sizes after all. I never learn!

August 27, 2013

Iconic Princess Blows a Mandala Bubble

The ten small mosaics are finished. Yesterday was grouting and cleaning day. I used plain white sanded grout to which I could customize to each mosaic by adding acrylic colorants and sometimes mica for an iridescent look.

Today I photographed the collection for posting and cataloguing, finding that I’ve surpassed the 2200 mark of items in my archive - another milestone.

In the piece posted above, I assembled objects not knowing what theme I was really working towards. I was just juxtaposing like colors and patterns. A peculiar image emerged. I’m calling it “Princess Blows a Mandala Bubble.” It has a little bit of an iconic look, or perhaps she is a piece of Russian Folk Art. The center face is a small relief tile that I had pit fired. The glaze on the piece delaminated so I sanded the whole thing down and painted it. ( As I did three other tiles inserted into other small mosaics.) The hair is metal composition leaf which gives the piece that reliquary look and the large eye looks distinctly archaic. This is very much a salvaged recycled piece. The background blue is made from an antique blue glass bowl that broke. The large mandala was a button with a piece chipped out of it. I chipped three more pieces out of the button to make it symmetrical and added glass beads in the curved chips. There is an abundance of glass beads that I had happened upon earlier at a construction site. Other pieces, like the silver leaf and the blue smalti, were expensive additions - hard to get away from pricey glitz when doing small mosaic gems.

August 26, 2013

Zen Tiles and Flint Mosaic

When making small mosaics such as the one illustrated above, I follow the advice I used to give my students by placing the center objects along with a border design then waiting for just the right material to be found or purchased for the background. It may take a while to find just the right pieces to form the environment for the central objects to bask in. That is often why I do several mosaics at the same time - hunting up or waiting for the right pieces.

Although I am a painter by training I don’t take a painterly approach to mosaic making. That is I no longer create a picture or cartoon to color in with various hues of glass and stone. My mosaics are built up as assemblages with fully formed objects resting in a mosaic background. I choose one or two objects for small mosaics then build out from there. I play with the central objects, moving them sideways, closer, further apart. Finally I paste them down when the right compositional relationship is met.

I played with the two miniature tiles for some time until they were in just the right asymmetrical balance. The tiles are red earthenware with stamped designs filled in with white slip then scraped away. The design on the large tile flows like a fish met in water, the round forms echoed by the inlaid pearl cabochon. The smaller tile is stamped with Chinese Zhuan Characters and reads, “Believe in the Zen Way.” Both of these tiles were originally intended to be used in jewelry but I stole them out of my jewelry box for my mosaics. So I’ve come full circle here. I used to make small tiles for use in my mosaics, then got the idea to put holes in these tiles and use them for jewelry focal beads or buttons instead, thinking I could more easily market them that way. I did sell a number of them but find it more interesting to place the tiles on wall hung art - at least for now.

The background for this piece is constructed of fragments of ungrouted flint that has just the right milky white color with subtle ribbons of golden red that relate both thematically and visually to the thin lines in the tiles. A simple zen-like mosaic, I can live with this for a while.

August 23, 2013

A Little Bit of Female Goddess Power

It has been more than a few days since my last post but fortunately that does not mean I haven’t been artistically productive. My art has just shifted temporarily away from drawing and towards making several small mosaics. Since I’m working on ten of these simultaneously it will probably be another few days to a week before they are finished.

The motivation for this shift was one of expediency. The recent deluge has flooded my basement studio. Fortunately I had picked up a bit before the rainy onslaught and managed to thereby save an even worse clean up. During my picking up I came across a few narrow strips of cement boards left over from teaching or the scrap from some project. The strips were just wide enough to lob off into eight five by seven inch rectangles to fit a box of frames I had on hand of the same dimension. There were two odd size six by five inch pieces that I opted to decorate anyway and spring for some extra molding to frame those as well.

I spread these pieces out, rummaged through my collection of manufactured tiles and found objects to come up with ten interesting compositions. I then wired these - horizontally or vertically depending on the composition - and cemented down the main elements of each along with a border design.

Then the deluge hit and my basement became a pond instead of a working studio. I brought the mosaics upstairs and have been working on them since in my higher and drier corner of my living room. Now that one by one, they are coming to completion I can record their visages as well as my thoughts on each.

The first finished piece I’ve posted above. I had happened to find five similarly glazed ceramic pieces that I had made years ago that were based on German jewelry designs from the middle ages. Also with a similar glaze was a small female figure based upon neolithic stone goddess figures like the famous Venus of Willendorf. I gave the female goddess a central place in the composition and surrounded the whole with undulating strata of stained glass baked with silver leaf separated from white vitreous glass by a strand of metallic beads.

The other day I mentioned this mosaic to my doctor, who felt that there just weren’t enough positive and powerful images of women in art. So here she is - a little bit of female power in a modest small mosaic.

August 19, 2013

Fossil Fish in Inks and Oil Pastels

I received a belated birthday gift of water soluble color pencils. It was not a medium that I had used before so it was a different experience drawing with them. For my experimental drawing I used a sketch of fossils from a page of my natural history museum notebook. I first outlined the fine boney structures in the color pencils, then added flat areas of oil pastels around the forms. After moistening the pencils, the colors ran into and stopped at the areas of oil resist creating isolated areas of transparent ink color against an opaque background.

This little drawing was created in a different medium not only to experiment with my lovely gift, but to celebrate a benchmark number of completed drawings - two hundred now since I started my great revision project. More to come.

August 16, 2013

Contractual Agreements

I often like to make art work that is ambiguous. I do this because I want the viewer, and hopefully future owner of the work, to weave his or her own tapestry of meaning about the subject and what it may mean. To underscore the equivocal meaning of the visual form, I usually select titles for works that are very much open to interpretations. In keeping with this theme I’ve just finished the charcoal and pastel drawing posted above and entitled it “Contractual Agreements.”

The drawing began as a sketch of a couple I saw in a café in Germany. When I finished the drawing yesterday I took away the food and drink and substituted pieces of paper on the table. The mood is tense and even a bit somber. The man is in the act of lifting a piece of paper. For the woman to sign? He looks cautiously intense. The woman is more difficult to read. Is she happy? Satisfied? Eager? Also cautious?

What kind of contract the couple is entering in to is also up to the viewer to interpret. Is it a contract that binds or a contract that severs a relationship? They could be a husband and wife, brother and sister, or have no relationship at all. It is and will remain a mystery.

August 15, 2013

Old Tiles Brought out to Online Light

While friends from Charleston were visiting, I sought to entertain them with my mosaic masks that double as functioning ocarinas. I found two of the ones I was looking for. But my foraging around also turned up a group of handmade tiles that I had created in the autumn of 2011. I had made them just as I was becoming very sick yet was still able to work. Although I did put the tiles in the Orangeburg County Fair a year later, they never were feted on the internet because I was offline for about 18 months during the worst phase of my illness.

So today I decided to put this small set of tiles on my website,

The tiles were made on free form red earthenware clay that was repeatedly pressed flat then sun dried. They were originally meant to be used for my student’s work on Pre Columbian art in a Spanish Camp course I had taught that summer. Time had run out just as we had finished our pit fired pottery and so we never get to the tiles. A few months later, not wanting them to go to waste, I broke open the small box of unused tiles back home and decorated them. I first used black and white engobes, then etched out sgraffito lines to help delineate the forms. After finishing a number of them in black and white with red lines, I experimented with adding colors. After firing them, I found that the red earthenware clay body showed through the parts of the colors where the white engobe was thin. This created a subtle tonality that I liked. The tones of the color tiles especially reminded me of faded antique tapestry.

The motifs I used on my tiles were inspired mostly by the flora of nature; fruits, leaves, flowers and seed pods. Two of these are shown here - loosely based on pomegranates. So here the tiles are again...a few years old but new to the net.

August 12, 2013

Fossil Fish Revisited

Today I finished an elaborately detailed pencil drawing of a sketch of fossil fish. The original sketch was used for what became a series of paintings in monochromatic hues that I dubbed the “fossil series.” I had used the fish on the top of the pair to create a painting that was much darker than the rest and incorporated some of the deep golden brown translucency of the nearby black water Edisto River. So I named the painting “Black Water River.” “Black Water River” is now in a private collection but the painting had some moments of public acclaim as part of my group exhibition at the Gibbes Museum of Art, “Aesthetic Transplantations: Yankee Seeds in Southern Soil” back in the early 90's.

From blueprint for a painting to a complete art work in its own right, my pencil drawing took on a very different character from its original context. The minute background details that were not present in either the original sketch or the actual fossil, gave the drawing a woven tapestry feel. Drawing in this slow style did indeed feel like other forms of slow art, like mosaic making, weaving, or beading.

August 10, 2013

A Charcoal Drawing of a Woman Without Her Dog

Turning the page in my notebooks, I rediscovered a sketch I made of a seated woman that became the basis for three paintings. Two large paintings remained in New Jersey. The third small square one was finished in South Carolina and became part of the Monologue series which then became part of a book of poetry and paintings. The small square one saw the addition of a white dog. Despite the fact that the sketch was black and white I remembered the woman’s black, white and red garments. That painting was collected by someone in Hendersonville, North Carolina I recall.

The original pencil sketch for the paintings was just finished up recently using dark, sultry charcoals and pastels. It has become a moody drawing even though the paintings it inspired were warm and glowing. I’ve reproduced at right the small painting with the dog along with the poem for comparison.
The White Dog

She comes to me

cloaked in white fur

The white robe she wears

when cloistered from the common world

from herself

from truth that curdles on the tongue

like a bitter herb

that makes me mute

She speaks to me

through her muddied white fur

soiled by a roll in the dice

played by God and the universe

Double fives

She speaks in numbered voices

of hopes, regrets, whimpering softly

to my closed eyes

She looks at me

Her dewy shining eyes

begging for a bone of absolution

tugging at the white skirt

that I wear

for protection

against the scratching paw

that bids me listen

August 9, 2013

Decorative Pencil Drawings of Deer

Moving along through my travel sketch books, I came across studies of deer. I decided to salvage two of these and discard the rest. One sketch was made from an actual stuffed deer I saw in a natural history museum. The other was a detail from a decorative middle eastern painting, ceramic or fabric design that I obviously did not make a note on. I decided to make both of these studies into detailed decorative works in linear pencil patterning. Getting lost in the details, then making sense of them all made for a creative day.

August 5, 2013

A Drawing of Girls Playing Rope in an Alley in Rome

I often find that my best drawings are not ones made with studious intent but by sudden impulse to record spontaneous events. These events usually happen while I am waiting for something - a bus or a doctor’s appointment. Or the drawings may seem to create themselves from playing with remnants of other works.

Such is the case with my recently completed drawing that I had started in Italy while waiting for a train. There were three young girls playing a rope game in an alley and I made notes of their relative positions and movements. They were featureless blobs on a page with thin notes about what was in the background. I was in a hurry and only had time to capture an essence. But I remember something being under construction by the detail on the right of a shovel. I remember the animated girl jumping in the center of the ropes that were strung around the ankles of the two girls on either side of her.

With careful work, I brought this scene back to life with the aid of charcoals and pastels - darkening the alley, adding features to faces, and patterns to dresses. Each girl took on a personality. The center one became joyful and spontaneous, the taller girl sisterly and commanding. The short squat girl embodied all that is the awkwardness of being between girlhood an womanhood. I was surprised that I had never worked this idea up into a painting. Perhaps I still may.

August 2, 2013

A Lady, a Persian Carpet, and a Little White Cat

Since I am on the theme of people and animals in my drawing, I decided to add a small white cat to the bottom of edge of the pencil on paper rendering of a Haitian woman seated amongst patterned fabric. The cat is curled up in such a way that his rounded form looks to me like a dollop of cream that fell from the white cloth. But in reality cats do have a habit of configuring themselves aesthetically to blend with their surrounding shapes. Perhaps this is a means of camouflaging themselves while sleeping.

In order to create a strongly patterned design in the carpet for this drawing, I studied the fabric and carpet designs found in Persian miniatures. I combined the border design in one with the interior forms in another. The plethora of details in these patterns slowed my progress towards completion but it made for a rich design.

August 1, 2013

A Boy and His Dog in Pencil on Paper

As I continue to revise drawings and make new ones it seems that a theme of people and animals is apparent. I claim that these additions of dogs, cats, goats and even monkeys to a figurative composition are there to fill up empty spaces, but perhaps there is something more to it. Perhaps there is something in these drawings about the bond of person to beast. In my recent drawing of one of my students sketching at Columbia College, I incorporated my father’s former pet sheep dog, Sarah. Sarah stares out at the viewer and stands in front of the boy, whose gaze is fixed upon a subject he is drawing. The dark foreground dog in a technical sense anchors the composition, but in a spiritual way she stands guard, protecting the boy at his task. Perhaps it is my desire to see my art and education preserved. Maybe my drawing has a subliminal political message as well. It could be an expression of my desire to see art protected and preserved in a larger community- especially in a state such as South Carolina, in which our governor is so strident about abolishing our state arts commission. It has become tiring to read about her persistent attempts to cut funding for the arts and I am certain that there are many in the arts and other meaningful professions who are counting the days until she is out of office.

The drawing of the dog and the boy is for now safely tucked away in my portfolio, while I wait for better days of bodily health and a better political climate.