December 29, 2013

Messages Not in Every Bottle

Not everything requires a verbal message, I said to myself as I finished up my painting series, “Messages in Bottles.” After painting single bottles with messages, I had started painting multiple bottles with complex prints and messages. The last two of these were painted in bright color triads of red, blue and yellow, one of which is featured below. The painting at the top was the last in my series. For this one, I used only stamps that were designs and not actual language, although they have an ideographic look The central stamp on this orange bottle was influenced by my recent readings of ancient Chinese bronze vessels. Despite the fact that it doesn’t have a particular meaning it became one of my favorite stamps and I used it in other works as well. It had an appearance of some kind of ancient bird deity with a pleasing streamlined design.

My original intention for this series of acrylic paintings was a pragmatic one. I was using up an old box of recycled frames. But as these things usually pan out, I ran out of frames before my ideas were exhausted. So I started removing old drawings from frames, putting them into folios, and re-using those frames as well.

After the bottle paintings I counted up the works for my “Small Works” exhibition and they came to over 75, with ten more in progress. This changed my concept for hanging the exhibition. Many of the works will now be in constellation groups, installation style. But more of that later.

December 27, 2013

The Women of Tunisia

During World War Two, my father served on a destroyer escort. His ship made stops in numerous ports around the world. Fortunately my father kept a photo journal of this trip, documenting life on board the ship, as well as what he saw in each port. I’ve always loved black and white photography and I was fascinated by the discovery of my father’s journal three years ago. What pleased me were the numerous well composed pictures that were little gems of life in Europe and North Africa during the war years. My father took them with an artist’s eye.

Unfortunately these photos were in very bad repair. There may have been dust on the lens or on the negatives because the photos were all snow storms of little white dots and full of scratches. Or perhaps they were just not appreciated at the time and as a consequence not well preserved.

One of the tasks I set myself for the upcoming year was to restore at least a sampling of these photos and print them on archival paper. This is a truly time consuming labor of love but I think will be worth the effort. It may even be somewhat therapeutic to work meticulously on these photographs, removing the dots and scratches in what is most assuredly glacial progress.

The photographs I have been working on are if TIFF files so the jpg printed above is in the unrestored condition. But the gist of the composition can certainly be gleaned from it. The photograph was taken in Tunisia circa 1945 and features three French women in a flower shop. The third woman hiding behind the plant was not revealed to me until closer scrutiny of the photograph in photoshop. Was she hiding from the photographer? Only the self-conscious grin remained visible in her mostly obscured face. I love this photograph not only because of the linear composition and the beautiful arrangement but because of the three women and their three different gazes - one gazing modestly downward, the other boldly facing the photographer, and the third a curiously anonymous smile.

December 26, 2013

Righteousness in a Bottle

Some small paintings, although diminutive, evoke a sense of largeness. That wasn’t my intent for most of my recent paintings of small bottles with imprints of Chinese character on them. But the painting of the last vessel with the imprint of the word for “Righteousness,” ended up seeming larger than its actual dimensions. Perhaps it was my reaction to the large meaning of the word “righteousness.” The etiology of the word for “righteousness” is an interesting compound, or logical aggregate. It is a combination of the word for “I” or “myself” and the word for “Sheep.” My Christian friends have always found that origin rather significant as a possible connection with a tender of the flock. For me it just means that righteousness means taking responsibility for, or being accountable to a community larger than oneself. And that is most likely why this form became different from my vessels of containment. This one is an object of expansion.

The growth of this painting from a small bottle into something that seemed larger started when I painted this vessel differently, not really as a vessel like the others but as a statuesque form something like a totem pole. To add to the textural mystery in the piece I painted in reds on top of variegated metal leaf. The vague image of a two-headed bird on top of the symbol for righteousness was printed from a stamp of the same. Is righteousness double-edged in nature? I would suppose so, as something both given and received.

December 22, 2013

A Little Box of Wisdom

Why can’t a more like a man?” crooned Rex Harrison years ago in the film version of My Fair Lady with Audrey Hepburn. He had an odd way of singing that was something halfway between speech and song. Rex Harrison could just as well been sing-speaking “Why can’t more like talking?”

Oddly enough, when I paint in acrylics, I hear Rex Harrison’s ditty in the back of my mind - only the words go “Why can’t more like oils?” Despite years of advice to my students to exploit the strongest characteristics of the medium they are using, I still try to make acrylic paint do what oil paint does. Oils dry slowly and can be manipulated over time. But acrylic dries quickly, forcing rapid work and quick decisions, neither of which I’m particularly good at. At least I can lean upon my experience with Chinese brush painting to work quickly. But then the quality of soft edges and subtle tonal modulations can be lost. Also, I’ve often found that adding ingredients to retard the drying time of acrylics tends to dull the intensity of the colors. So what can be done to make an acrylic painting....more like an oil?

For one thing, I start with tinted gesso over which I then add colors and textures. The final painting goes on top of that using generous helpings of glaze medium that lets the under painting to show through and allows the paint to slide around. In order to move more quickly with the paint I generally do finger painting. I also manipulate the paint rapidly with palette knives of various sizes, sgraffito and wet rag wipes. Seems like a lot of work to get an acrylic to be a lot like an oil.

These were some of the techniques I used in the painting to the right from my “messages in bottles,” series. A visiting friend saw the painting on my table top the other day. “Is this an oil?” she asked. Victory was mine! I thought when she spoke the precious words. Yet I still felt that it was rather frantic work to make acrylics do what oils do better. The little stamp on the form in this painting reads “wisdom.” Would it be wise to remember that I’m an oil painter at heart?

December 21, 2013

Spiritual Resonance in a Small Green Bottle

Every now and then while I’m painting, my in-house critic makes his favorite picks. For reasons that I’m not certain of, he chose the small painting of a green bottle as his best pick of this run of paintings of small bottles. Was it the color? The form? Or was it because this one was different from the rest? The others have the words printed on the bottle form. In this case I printed the words on the neck of the vessel, leaving the body free to make whimsical swirls of design. Perhaps he picked this one out for that difference.

It was good to shake the forms up slightly by a different placement of the stamped words. In this case I happened to have a carving of the ancient zhuan words for “spiritual resonance,” a line taken from one of the six principles of Chinese painting, carved onto a long thin rock. I used this because the words could apply to much more than just painting or even art in general. They were nice words to live by - almost like the maxim to follow one’s joy.

December 20, 2013

The Shining Moon or Moonshine?

For my next experiment in painting with ancient language on imaginary bottles I started with metal leaf. The metal leaf I used was a composition of brass and copper which had a rich pattern of iridescent colors. I used to used real silver and gold leaf but that became rather expensive and the composition leaf seemed to serve just as well.

I stamped the bottle in the painting with the ancient zhuan words for “the shining moon.” Actually, reading from top to bottom it reads moon first then shine next. Being steeped in the language of another culture in another time, I did not at first realize the joke I was playing on myself by labeling a bottle, “moon shine,” albeit in an archaic script that just about no one would be able to read. I only thought of the romantic shining mystery of a full moon. Even the lid to this vessel I painted white and moon like. The dark surroundings was like a night sky. I wiped and scratched through the dark paint to the shiny metal leaf beneath the surface. A glittering gem of a small painting emerged.

A Little Bit of Joy in a Red Bottle

I’ve always liked the old style Chinese character for joy, as it depicts a person holding two sticks with bells or some other noisemakers on them and dancing happily. Joy is sound and joy is dance and happy is the one who can make both. I thought it fitting to print this on my painting of imaginary red lidded bottle. I have been trying to create an entire palette of colors on this things and this was my first round red one. The joy on the bottle is tempered however by prints of the character for wisdom in the background of the painting. It is the wise man who knows when to contain his joy.

Update: It is also the now visually impaired artist who chose the wrong seal for the background print. It is the seal for “excellence” and not wisdom. They look a little bit close. Oh well.

December 19, 2013

The Virtuous Heart in a Bottle

The virtuous heart. The words are printed quite clearly on my painting of a snuff bottle from my imagination. The stone was carved decades ago and I have hardly ever used it. But I thought it would be amusing to use it to embellish this painting of a bottle. As if virtue could be administered from a small bottle. Perhaps there is an ironic theme developing in these bottles conjured in paint emblazoned with messages promising an instant acquiring of virtues, abilities, and achievements that are generally slow in coming if at all. But irony is always present in my art, whether I intend it or no.

At least the bottles are colorful and engaging. This one was painted on paper sized with a blue tinted ground which shows through at the base and through the places where the stamp pulled the wet paint off. For good measure I added some sgraffito as well to bounce the blue around.

December 18, 2013

Messages in Bottles

For the past week, I’ve been finishing my acrylic paintings on paper for my small works exhibition. I had started out with repainted folk art designs but then a new theme developed - vessels and bottles. The square paintings of teapots completed, I turned to the very tiny pieces of sized paper and determined that a life sized snuff bottle could fit just right on to this format. Before painting my imaginary snuff bottles I carved a series of linoleum blocks with ancient Chinese Zhuan script on them. A few I carved with just pictographic designs. These I filled with acrylic paint in modulated colors. I then stamped these into the wet but not oozing paintings of the wet bottles. The ridges of paint that formed around the words gave an embossed effect which gave the effect of designs in low relief. I painted about twelve of these in various shapes and colors. My thoughts for display are to have them hung in three separate rows on top of one another to give the impression of a snuff bottle collection.

There is a current exhibition of snuff bottles at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which, health permitting, I just might be able to see on my next medical trip. The message in the lid and on the body of the blue bottle at right say “Remarkable World.” Perhaps I should have printed a sign for good health on one of the bottles.

December 11, 2013

Stamps on Theoretical Teapots

My recent small painting projects have evolved once again into a combination of painting, collage, and monoprints. This is probably why I also make mosaics. I can’t get away from thinking of paint as the glue in which to adhere things. Even the stamps I apply wet into wet so that the pigment oozes between the lines of the print, preserving the viscous quality of the substance of paint.

In the latest in my series of “The Theoretical Teapot,” I used a labyrinthine stamp on the body of the vessel. The background was textured by painting through a woven piece of fiber. Using the stuff of applied materials feels like free painting - the shapes practically make themselves. All I do is delicately emphasize these textures with a small paintbrush, varnish and pigment. Unlike many of my stamps, the one I used for this painting is decorative only and doesn’t actually say or mean anything. But can language be far behind? A day spent carving Chinese stamps will change the way this series evolves.

December 9, 2013

Theoretical Teapot Two

For my second "theoretical teapot" I chose a soft earth tone palette. The painting is a fusion of two teapots that I have in my collection, one a very large cream colored piece by a contemporary artist and the other a miniature votive offering which probably came from a tomb. So it is both of them or neither. I liked the soft and subtle Morandi like earth tone palette in the painting. I’ve always been fascinated by the effects of glazes on pottery - especially specialty firing like ash glazes or shino glazes in a wood fired kiln - and sought to use paint as though it were in a mutable form like something that melts in a fire.

December 7, 2013

Theoretical Teapots

My husband and I love tea. We love hand made art teapots almost as much. Over the years we collected teapots from various ceramic artists. But because we are both inclined towards clumsiness we never use them. Instead our morning ritual tea is steeped in an old hand made teapot I made in during my college years. Oddly enough, despite our clumsiness it never breaks. One day recently my husband decided that the old teapot should be retired because it doesn’t hold quite enough for more than two people should we have a guest, and because it doesn’t exactly pour efficiently. And it is rather ugly. So a decision was made to commission a new teapot from a local artist despite the fact that we have a fine collection of serviceable ones from years of acquiring them. I first tried to convince my husband to put one of our myriad teapots into service but he was skeptical. “But they are art pots,” my husband protested. I convinced him to try a Shawn Ireland stoneware teapot anyway. It surely looked sturdy enough for us couple of bulls in the China shop. But this teapot had an overhead bamboo handle that was rigidly fixed in an upright position, interfering with emptying water into it with ease. So I tried to convince my husband to try an old teapot that I got from my father that was made in England circa World War II. “But that is a collectible,” came his reply. I suppose he was right. And we would end up acquiring yet another teapot, this time commissioned to specifications for our daily morning use.

I thought that perhaps I should make a teapot. I no longer have a potter’s wheel although I do have access to one. But I do have plenty of plaster forms for rounded objects which could easily be put into service in making a hand built teapot. Had I mentioned this to my husband? Perhaps not because I could see that he was set on putting an order in for a teapot from a professional ceramicist. Most likely the professional ceramicist would make a pot more easily and more technically proficient than me.

Yet the idea that I could come up with a good teapot had not left me. I had been studying teapot designs on Etsy and even juried online exhibitions of my favorite designs. I mulled this over as I sat down to work on paintings for my miniature art show. What emerged from my paint that day was a series of paintings of imaginary teapots. Theoretical teapots, I named the series. They all have a handle on the side so as not to interfere with putting in water or removing expended tealeaves. I imagined them large and providing tea for the multitudes. I liked how the series progressed, and allowed myself great experimentation with faux finishing tecnques, stamps and stencils. I liked the series so much that I started stealing paintings of other objects and making them into teapots. An example is an old painting of a seated Buddha in meditation. Add a handle, lid and spout and he is born anew as a vessel for pouring tea.

December 6, 2013

Homage to Bruegel

There is a painting by Pieter Bruegel of Hunters in the Snow where a group of dogs on the hill in the foreground walk with the hunter past a tall dark tree. The tree passes through the dark body of the dog yet does not blend with it, even though it is practically the same color and intensity as the dog. I have often wondered whether there is just enough subtlety in hue to disconnect the tree trunk from the dog’s body or if we disconnect it ourselves because we can make a cognitive differentiation between dog and tree although they are one and the same on the two dimensional surface.

In my painting of dogs in the woods I did a similar thing to the Bruegel painting of the hunting scene by putting a white dog behind a white tree. Only I was not as confident as Bruegal in making the cognitive shift from dog to tree when they are the same color so I outlined the tree and changed the tone somewhat. But the idea remains the same.

The dogs depicted in the painting are from drawings I made of my father’s black sheep dog. I used these sketches in a number of drawings and with this painting the sketches are now officially retired and have been discarded, lest I be tempted to use them again.

As usual, the painting is a little too stiff for me - most likely because I’ve just switched media from pencil illustrations. A few more paintings ought to work that out and the paint will swing again.

December 5, 2013

Salacious Poetry in the Book of Cats

Yesterday I finished my last illustration for my no longer “small” book, “The Small Book of Marvelous Cats.” This last illustration was for a short verse that began as a scatological bit of doggerel that I wrote on a short trip to North Carolina. The short poem was somewhat problematic for me. Although I liked the pun for “Fornicat” the verse may be too heavily weighted on the salacious side to include. So I came up with a discreet illustration and a more Victorian sounding poem to match it. But I will include, for readers’ curiosity the original poem and the tamer version. I hope that the second version, however, is more reader friendly. But I still have a secret preference for the former. I no longer get comments on this blog but it anyone would like to name their preferred version of poem for this illustration then I would be grateful for the input.


Fornicat wears a salacious grin

on account of where he’s been

Other Toms say he isn’t fussy

But he does prefer his Persian Pussy

Revised Version

Lover Cat

Lover Cat wears a contented smile

He’s been with his favorite Puss for a while

Cavorting among flowers in the month of May

And in a room to themselves in a country chalet

December 4, 2013

Coon Hunts, Boar Hunts, and the Wildlife Exhibition of Orangeburg County

Today the Orangeburg County Fine Arts Center hung opened an exhibition which hopefully will become a new annual tradition: work by local artists featuring wildlife. The idea behind the exhibition was to piggy back (or should I say wild piggy back) on Orangeburg County’s very popular annual coon hunt festival, which happens in early January every year.

I have never been to the great American Coon hunt but have always been curious about it. Not being a hunter or hunting inclined I’ve tended to avoid such events here in South Carolina. But even for non-hunters the event may be worth a look. For one thing, no animals, racoons or others, are actually killed. The sport is to test the ability of hunting dogs (aka the coon dog) to rustle up racoons and have them run up into a tree. Apparently the dog that gets the most racoons up a tree wins the contest.

In order to participate in the call to local artists to create and lend work for the coon hunt/wild life exhibition I ransacked my domestic oeuvre to find paintings or drawings that might feature wildlife. There was a cavernous space to fill and not many contributions of artwork so I lent a total of eight pieces to the exhibition, seven my own and an eighth a work by the Chinese painter, Gao Guan-hua that features an insect. I didn’t want to be a hog. I just didn’t want the show to open with a blank wall or two. In addition to my own work I rustled up a nice wildlife photograph from my husband, Nat Wallace, and some beautiful ceramic plates by Jeri Burdick featuring various amphibians. The ceramic plates are my favorite art works in this exhibition. They are the only pieces that are sculptural and I am certain will be the highlight of the show.

Some of the work I put in this exhibition was new, but some of it went back a few decades. The picture of the wild boar depicted with this blog was an ink painting on a long horizontal scroll that I did while a graduate student in Chinese art back in the 1980's. I chose this piece because it was life size and therefore filled a wall, and depicted an animal that had some relevance to the South Carolina hunting scene. I had read an article some time ago about wild boars in South Carolina and their sporting interest to hunters. I don’t know if boar hunting has been maintained since I read that article but if so, then the submission was apropos. I hope that someone enjoys it.