February 28, 2014

A Sleeping Cat Blooming Like a Rose

A little white cat with big ears

Uses them more than just to hear.

When the house is all a-hush

You will see they start to blush.

Then a gentle quiver starts

A nod, a jerk, a twitch --

As he delves even deeper

Into his role of a sleeper

You know that his dreams are rich.

February 26, 2014

Pink Cat in Verse and Paint

I was attracted to a poem about a cat. Or I should say the memory of a poem about a cat that was white with pink highlights. The cat was running in my memory and became entirely pink and grey so I painted it that way and added a collage border like I had on a previous small painting of a leaping cat. I showed it to my friend Kris Miller, who had written the poem that inspired the painting. She pointed out that the poem was about a sleeping cat. Funny how memory plays tricks on one. The color pink loomed so large in my recall of the poem that the state of sleep was erased.

Yesterday I finished some designs for a commission so had some time to spare between the client’s final decision and the start of the work. Into this small gap between activities I dashed off a painting of a sleeping pink cat. Still not true to the actual cat because the sleeping cat was white, the pink cat is at least in repose. Yet looking at the poem again, it could very well be about a rose colored cat. It is a light and humorous little kitty ditty so perhaps it was fitting to make a miniature about it.

I had just enough border design from my previous painting/collage to fit around the border of this one as well. It created an impression of a quilt. At various points in the painting I brought the dark triangular shapes of this border into the painting.

Another look at the poem reveals an essence captured even if details are not correct:

43 – Pinkie II (Mickey)

One cat is nicknamed Pinkie
But not because he’s a commie

Along with an eye that’s winky

He got his genes from his Mommie.

So as he grew up and got older

His gray paws got much paler

And his nose turned bicolor

As a rosy hue took over. -Kris Miller

February 24, 2014

Celebrating the Year of the Horse

A few days ago, we were invited to celebrate Chinese New Year at the Confucius Institute at the University of South Carolina. There was good food and entertainment to ring in the Year of the Horse. The entertainment potpourri consisted of Beijing Opera, a musical interlude on the saxophone that did not sound particularly Chinese, and a performance by children from the relatively new Chinese language immersion school, East Point Academy. The last performance was perhaps the most impressive. It was certainly encouraging to see young children from South Carolina speaking and singing fluently in Chinese. It was good to know that in at least some areas, this state has become forward thinking. Their intonation in Mandarin was already pitch perfect and they could speak idiomatically. Here is the potential for South Carolina to have an entourage of fluent Chinese speakers, trained from childhood. I imagine they will have a significant edge in doing business as adults if their language skills are maintained.

To celebrate the year of the horse, I ‘ve been reworking some old sketches of horses. The one above was originally sketched in pencil from life when I went out to see the horses at dawn. I still remember the rising sun making a golden halo around the horses red bodies. I made a few paintings from this sketch so today I thought to add colors and retire it from service.

February 21, 2014

Cat Paws

The interlude between the end of creating art for my current exhibition and the start of a small commission saw a creative pause - or should I say paws. I was inspired to make some small painting/collages by the poetry of a friend. I had been sharing images and rhymes from my Small Book of Marvelous Cats with Kris for some months now. After reading several of my little kitty ditties and offering constructive advice on how to make the illustrations better, Kris was inspired to try her hand at writing poetic odes to the cat as well. I usually write one or two a month when I have an idea for an illustration. Kris, however, in a wild burst of creative energy much like the leaping cat that inspired it, wrote a fifty poem tome within a few weeks. Amazing!

The first poem in her newly written book of poetry was based on watching a cat trying to catch a fly. There was an interesting allusion in the poem to Kris’s unusual February 29th birth date. A leap year and a leaping cat. I made a painting for this that depicted a many armed cat flailing away at an unseen fly. I thought the fly should appear in the collage border around the miniature. I made this intensely decorative by painting each square in the border with flying insects, cat eyes, and bird beaks. It was a mess of color and shapes. Just out of curiosity, when I glued the last square down and counted them up. There were thirty-one squares. That was close to the leap year twenty-nine so I decided to try again with another version of the painting. In the second version I made a more natural looking cat, albeit blue. I then surrounded it with exactly twenty-nine squares. The four corner squares are a stamped design reading “flying” in Chinese seal script - hard for me to resist a stamp or two. The poem that marks Kris Miller’s debut into the society of cat poets is as follows:

1 - Little ballerina cat - an ode to Sadie (Sadie) Look at the little ballerina cat

She has her eye on a fly

She leaps She spins

She's very spry

But can't quite catch her prey

So perhaps another day... I'll bet in Leap Year she'll get a boost

To jump and twirl even higher

And bring down that nasty fly at last

Her giddy heart's desire! -Kris Miller

February 20, 2014

Letting the Clay Body Shine Through

The last batch of ceramics I made for my pit firing made use entirely of locally mined clay. This clay had a variety of interesting colors in buff, red and caramel. In order to make use of the natural color in the clay body I made a number of small vessels that I either did not apply colorants to, or applied pigments to highlight only small areas like lids on vessels or the neck of a bottle. I used a stone to burnish the surface of the natural clay, leaving it rough in certain areas for contrast. The small lidded bowl pictured above was a product of original design. But the bottles with the long necks were inspired by the Byzantine glass bottles I saw recently in New York. One of these had an interesting donut hole in the base. Most had long slender necks that swelled in the middle then tapered down again towards the top. Their original purpose was to hold myrrh. My ceramic bottles inspired by these exotic vessels hold only air.

February 19, 2014

Fallen Limbs: Menace or Manna?

When I was in China, I was impressed by how the Chinese students I worked with described their potential for accomplishments. Accomplishing a goal was a factor of time, effort and relative ability. I never heard from my students that they considered themselves incapable of achieving something. A student who considered himself not as talented or capable as a classmate simply said it would take him or her more time to complete the same task, never that it could not be done. This impressed me considerably and I remembered this lesson from my students until this day. Reducing a task to a factor of time needed and degree of effort required instead of allocating a desired goal to the impossible or possible became especially apropos in the face of a protracted illness.

It takes me much longer to do the things I used to do, but I still do them, finding ways to compensate for my slowness and awkwardness. This has certainly been the case in the production of pit fired ceramics. Gone are the days when I could collect tinder and chop wood in the morning and fire a kiln in the afternoon. Instead I start collecting small pieces of wood about a month in advance of a firing, usually a handful a day from the nearby woods where I take a short morning walk. A month of daily handfuls makes for one wood firing. It takes a long time, but it gets done and it is possible.

Last week we had the ice storm. The fallen tree limbs were a menace - downing power lines and leaving us without power for four days. Yesterday, with the help of a friend with a chain saw, we got most of the larger fallen limbs out of the way. I used a heavy duty pruner to cut the smaller branches. These I’ve been slowly stacking the branches for the next pit fire. I’ve been carefully peeling the side twigs off of dogwood limbs for kindling. After about another week I’ll have my pile of timber ready for the next firing. So was the fallen timber was only a menace to our power system. It was more like manna from heaven for my future art.

The small lidded vessel pictured above came from the most recent pit fire. The copper carbonate reduced to red in small areas - exactly what I had hope for against the blues and blacks.

February 18, 2014

Going Local for Ceramic Art

My last pit firing yielded the best results yet. The clay that was locally mined remained stable and did not crack or explode in the fire. The colors were exactly what I had hoped for. I had been trying to get dramatic changes from light to dark with patterning and good color variations. This was accomplished by adding sea salt and copper carbonate to the organic matter in my outdoor pit kiln. Smothering the fire with local Spanish moss helped create the dark black patches that I desired.

Almost everything that went into the lidded vessel above was obtained locally. The clay came from a tributary of the Edisto River. The wood and organic matter were also obtained from the nearby park and from my back yard. It was something of a miracle that a vessel such as this one could emerge almost entirely from the processing of materials within a mile radius of my home. What was added that was not local was the copper carbonate that I had on hand from a ceramic course I took years ago in the Netherlands. I had considered burnishing the surface of the red clay to be a purist in my cottage industry but I could not resist using my terra sigillata glaze made from blue and green commercial underglaze colors mixed with a homemade terra sigillata base.

As I don’t have a wheel, this vessel was made entirely by pinch and coiling. The lid was made by running a blade attached to a template around the upper perimeter of the form. I still need to polish my skills at doing this.

This lidded vessel was originally designed as a funerary urn for a departed friend who I miss very much. I like to think that it turned out well because I took care for this to be a final resting place. But it may turn out not to be quite large enough. I’ll be making more of these to find something that is just the right fit and because I do like the form.

February 12, 2014

To Cancel or Not to Cancel On Account of Ice?

To cancel or not to cancel? That was the question before us yesterday morning, the day of the opening of my art exhibition at the Orangeburg County Fine Arts Center. Announcements had been made, fliers sent out and the evening before the opening reminders had been sent. After considering the late time and consulting the weather reports we decided that the show would go on as planned. The ice storm was not really due to hit until the following morning and I was casting my hopes and favors upon people who would brave unpleasant cold and wet weather, albeit not yet dangerous, to attend my opening.

Knowing that very few people would be likely to attend, I cut the amount of refreshments to be served in half, cancelled a hair appointment, swallowed my expectations and went to my opening. All in all there were about fourteen people in attendance, including staff. Most people were reluctant to come from out of town, or were busy preparing for the oncoming storm.

I found out among my friends who prepared the best and the earliest for the oncoming weather debacles. Only the confidently prepared ventured out on the night before this storm.

The preparedness bug hit me the day of the ice storm. The compunction to prepare up to the last minute was strong Loads of laundry done, candles brought out, firewood collected. The last was quite a challenge because my logs and kindling had not been covered the night before and as such were thickly coated with ice. I chipped as much as I could off of them and brought them inside like a litter of lost freezing puppies. Putting them on sheets of plastic I waited for the ice to melt then sopped up the mess. This probably was not worth the effort but time will tell.

In the mean time, my friend and mentor, Lee Malerich, posted a charming blog about my current exhibition along with interesting conclusions about what seems to me to be almost mystic origins about my paintings. Here is the link.http://leemalerich.wordpress.com/

February 11, 2014

Troll Dolls and other Toys Within Reach from the Sixties

In the late autumn of 2011, when I was about at the nadir of my illness, I made a series of small paintings of troll dolls. I had these in my personal collection from childhood. Not wishing to keep them I put them up for market on E-bay. The best of my collection sold and I was left with just two scrappy looking dolls as well as a good troll horse that I had changed my mind about selling. I had not the energy to continue to work on e-bay by November nor could I do much of anything for quite some time. Needless to say, I still painted, albeit very slowly and very small. I turned to my two remaining troll dolls and the troll horse as subject matter for small paintings simply because they were there in my collection of toys from the mid to late sixties and within easy reach. At the time I joked with my friend Lee Malerich, that if I were ever to exhibit these I would name the exhibition “At Arm’s Length” because I was only painting things within reach of my immediate resting places. I painted the troll dolls, some kitsch bone China figurines, and a large plastic frog.

By far the troll dolls were my favorite subjects from this time period. Something about that hair that went on forever, double the length or more of the strange little beast’s body. I had a supply of long and narrow panels that were just the right dimensions for the troll dolls. Their bodies were painted onto the lower third of the panel leaving the rest of the space for the hair. I had fun with that hair, twisting it into odd shapes and changing the color to suit my whims. I only stopped painting this series when I ran out of panels. Otherwise I might still be painting them today! The series didn’t actually stop, though, with the long and narrow panels. I discovered that I had a supply of five by seven panels which I used for back views of the troll dolls. For these I painted the hair split or bobbed to fit the small space.
I thought that studying the troll doll back, front and sideways made good use of my prop from the sixties. It was only after I posted them on Etsy, however, and saw one selected for a treasury featuring “moons” that I realized that the back view was a bit rude looking. How ironic to have such a thing painted on a marble dust gesso ground, Renaissance style!

For about a year I was too weak to sit at a computer for more than about five minutes at a time. As a result my blog site and web site became fallow fields. With my current exhibition and peaks of restored stamina I can now discuss some of this work on my blog post and elsewhere. Always nice to take a second look at work gone by.

February 10, 2014

Antithetical Teapots

Working up to the last minute as usual, I could not help but add a few more things to my exhibition of small works the day before my opening party. One of these was a small painting of an imaginary teapot to be paired with a painting/monoprint that I had completed previously. The former one, “Interior Person in a Teapot,” was meant to be a part of my small paintings of imaginary vessels. The trouble was it stood out as different from all the rest. The paintings of small bottles were all vertical in orientation and the teapot was horizontal. It was also an image of a very different sort of vessel. As a result I didn’t hang this painting with the others but alone on a section of another wall.

Deciding that this painting required a partner I made an equal but opposite image of a teapot. Hung side by side, they looked like the antithetical couplets of Chinese poetry. The first was dark on light and this one was light on dark. The phrase I selected for this vessel was “Eternal Person.” to contrast with the words “Interior Person” in the dark on light teapot. The words, in Chinese seal script, were a little hard to read because I printed the stamp onto wet paint but I did want the words to be somewhat amorphous.

Like the first painting, the second one was done for the most part as a stamp on top of a monoprint. The painting/print came about more slowly than I had anticipated. I thought I had saved the block from the first teapot but apparently I had discarded it. So I created it anew. Creating a new styrofoam teapot form to print enabled me to make this one pointing in the opposite direction of the former - a true antithetical painting.

February 7, 2014

An Olmec Figure with a Rude Squeak

The small reclining statuette pictured above was made from locally mined clay and pit fired. She was based upon an Olmec figure that I saw at the Metropolitan Museum of Art some years ago. On a recent visit to the Met I was amazed to see her still on display! I gave her only a cursory glance, however, because I had made a detailed sketch of her on my last trip to the museum. From this sketch I made a plasticine sculpture of a similar reclining figure. My original intent for this figure was to use her as a relief sculpture so I sculpted the plasticine with one flat side. It was easy to make a plaster mold of the figure this way. I made a number of ceramic figures from this mold and used them in my mosaic works.

For my current exhibition, however, I tried something different. I made the figure hollow instead of solid and sculpted a back side so that she would be a small sculpture in the round. Not satisfied with her being a sculpture I added a mouthpiece on her head so that she would become a functioning whistle. Then I did something absolutely scatological. In order to raise the pitch of the whistle I decided to make an exit hole. Where else but in the figure’s posterior.

To play this instrument one must blow into the figure’s head and the sound comes out her butt. Why do I do such things? Perhaps it hails back to a youth spent testing my mother’s Victorian sensibilities by creating the occasional “rude” art work or by making decidedly edgy jokes for her. Oh, I was such a bad, bad child! I knew whenever I had gone too far in my off-colored remarks or nasty creative exploits. My mother’s face would darken and she would say in a hushed and ominous voice, “That’s sick, Janet.”

There was indeed something totally irreverent about taking a sculptural object that most likely originated as a goddess worthy of veneration and transforming her into a rude flute. But maybe I need to remind myself to not always take art too seriously. Hopefully it is just “fun.” If my mother were here would I be exonerated by hearing her say, “That’s funny, Janet?” I hear those words in my imagination, in exoneration for taking high brow art and converting it into low brow entertainment.

February 5, 2014

"Little Goose" and "Sounds" in a Painted Backdrop

Sometimes simple solutions become complicated. That is usually because I make them so. In my last post I mentioned that I was at work on painting some backdrops for the brown ocarinas that I have on display at the Orangeburg County Fine Art Center. The brown ocarinas were lost against the brown color of the wall on which they were hung. So I cut some ovals out of paper and faux finished them in marble whites.

Then I began to get fancy. I remembered some Chinese white papers with gold flecks and embossed seal script calligraphy on them. Wouldn’t it be interesting to make stamps of the seal script words for sounds and ocarinas and stamp them onto the white backdrop surface using gold and copper paint? Trouble was I didn’t know the Chinese word for ocarina. And it was not in my Chinese English dictionary. I could have made something up and translated the words “globular flute” but I decided instead that it would be more interesting to translate the meaning of “ocarina” from the original Italian. The word literally means “little goose.” I knew those words in Chinese and could therefore look those up in a book on seal script calligraphy. There was no word for “goose” in that dictionary. That either meant that the dictionary was not complete or that the Chinese word for “goose” is not ancient. Were there no geese in ancient China? Are were there geese by a different name? In cases where a seal carver can’t find a seal script for a word he sometimes invents one by cutting and splicing parts of other words. I did that for goose. The Chinese word for goose is a curious one. It is a bilateral pictograph consisting of the word for “bird” on the right, and the word for “I, myself” on the left. But sometimes “I” is on the top or “I” is on the right. And that is a very weird sentence in English. But why should “I” be a attached to a “bird” to make a goose? Chinese aggregate words often make sense but sometimes they don’t. I suspect in the case of “I” and the “goose,” the “I” is a phonetic key instead of something that adds meaning to a word. The word “goose” must sound something like the word for “I.” “I” sound like a goose.

In order to make an ancient seal script stamp for “ocarina” or “little goose,” I took the seal script word for “I” and the seal script word for “goose” and put them side by side into one compound word. I don’t know if that was cheating or not but it looked right. Then I carved a number of smaller stamps with the seal script word for “sounds,” and “resonance.” These I liberally printed over the white painted surface. I then realized that I had not included the “little goose,” stamp. I placed that one in the middle of the oval. This, of course, will be hidden by the ocarina itself. A lot of work and research into something that will not even be seen. For this reason, I will most likely use my “little goose” stamp on future clay projects. I may even use it on some paintings I have in mind of bottles with very, very long necks.

February 4, 2014

Ocarinas Like Burned Cookies

In the two weeks before hanging my present small works exhibition, I turned once again to making small pit fired ceramic art. I did this because I had earlier written a grant proposal to fund this exhibition in which I had alluded to my incorporating work that was made from locally mined clay. I had indeed included some small ceramic pieces but only one of these was made from the Edisto clay. I had mined more clay and processed it over the summer but had never used it. So, despite the fact that the grant monies will most likely not be forthcoming, I decided that it would still be best to be true to my written proposal and use the local clay. This required converting my creative space from a painter’s studio to a sculptor’s atelier. A change of medium always feels a tad like moving in to a new apartment and I therefore put it off as long as possible. But the time for hanging my exhibition was drawing near and I had to account for drying time, time to burnish and bisque the work, then smoke fire it in an outdoor kiln. Paints were packed away and the clay was rolled out.

The clay that I used for the pieces pictured above and at right was mined from different veins in the local clay pit resulting in variations from dark red to yellow ochre and buff white. I wanted these colors to remain visible so I did not put my usual terra sigillata colors over the clay but instead burnished the clay surface itself, Catawba style. Fortuitously, one evening during my creation of these pieces, there was a PBS program on television featuring a Catawba potter burnishing her pots with a stone. I picked up some good tips and used them.

Small sculptural figures, faces and forms became a set of whistles, ocarinas and idiophones. I had earlier written in my grant proposal that my art work would include musical instruments. Turning locally mined clay into musical instruments therefore covered two key points in my proposal.

Creating clay works so close to the time that they would have to be shown was living a bit dangerously. The clay batch was untested and therefore possibly not stable. It could have broken in the bisque firing. It could have cracked and exploded in the pit firing. Fortunately neither happened. But what did happen is that the ceramic work became more reduced in the pit firing than I would have liked. The red clay turned dark black and brown. The black iron oxide turned red. This was due to my having stoked the fire to burn very hot and then sealing the outdoor kiln very securely against an impending snow storm. On account of the cold in the atmosphere and the head cold in my body I had forgotten to make that critical visit outdoors at night to vent the upper part of the kiln in order to allow the fire to create flash points (lighter areas) on the ceramics. As a result I had a very dark body of work. Fortunately after cleaning and waxing, the browned clay took on a bronzed look that was not unappealing. But this left just one small problem - the exhibition walls were brown.

Today I packed up my sculpture studio and brought out my paints in order to paint light colored back drops for my brown clay musical instruments.

February 1, 2014

Store Fronts Leaning Left

The last oil painting I completed of a store front reminded me of a crispy, sugared cookie. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was the crunchiness of the decayed bricks, or the bright greens and reds on the surface that looked like confectioner’s icing or color sprinkles. Or maybe I was just hungry when I painted it.

There was a long wire looped around the facade of this building. A choice had to be made. Leave it out or leave it in? My husband voted to leave it out. I left it in - not to assert my independent aesthetic judgement vis a vis my husband, but because my background in dance and calligraphy has left me with the inability to resist a calligraphic mark. And the wire across the building whipped around in a very dance-like calligraphic fashion. So I painted it in, the sinuous line half painted and half carved with a palette knife.

Another thing that I noticed about my series of buildings is that they are mostly lopsided. Part of this was caused by actual building tilt, another part by picking up on lens distortion, and thirdly by my failing eyesight. Decisions about these imperfections had to be made. I’ve always liked periodic dissonance in music, like what can sometimes be heard in a Benjamin Britten work. This pickle of a note in an otherwise sweet melody reminds a listener that all is not perfect in the world. So I decided to keep the lopsided buildings for now. I can always change my mind and repaint them depending upon just how much of a skewed view I can continue tolerate.