August 17, 2017

The Red Thread of Meaning

Drawing number sixty-four of the eighty plus that I hoped to finish for a literary project over the summer is now complete. This drawing illustrates the verse, "The Red Thread." The title, and the verse, comes from the German phrase, "der rote Faden des Erzählens." This can perhaps best be translated as a red thread, or the thread of continuity, in a story. It is difficult to find use of the phrase in English, but here is an interesting blog from 2012 that does grasp the meaning well: http://www.storydriven.net/blog.htm?post=885192

I first wrote the poem The Red Thread, after speaking with a philosophy professor in Germany who, despite a life of reading, writing and teaching, lamented not finding his "red thread." In this case he used the term in a broader context of a unifying principle upon which he could fashion a reason for existence.

In my original manuscript, the poem The Red Thread, is illustrated by a painting of a man squatting on a floor surrounded by red threads, all seemingly not grasped. In my new drawing, the figure does hold the red thread. Making this drawing helps me understand that drawing itself, especially setting long term goals with drawing projects, is my red thread.

I do hope that everyone reading this will find their red thread, whatever that may be.

August 13, 2017

Ostracon Overlay

Drawing number sixty-three, from my series of eighty drawings (I hope) for eighty verses, was completed last night. This drawing originated from the sketch for the verse "The Ostracon." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ostracon

An ostracon is a term used to describe ancient shards of pottery with writing on them. These were often used almost like ancient post it notes to write down the mundane notes and sketches from daily life. In this respect they are often useful to archaeologists for understanding day to day activities, conflicts and concerns of ordinary citizens in ancient societies.

In my drawing, there are intact vases as well as a fragment on a shelf in the background beside the seated figure. The dress pattern on the figure was derived from a pattern found on an ancient piece of sculpture from Mesopotamia. The sculpture in the picture on the wall behind the figure is also from that time period, circa 2600 BC.

The subject of pottery came up in an interesting way as I made my original drawing. During my sketching, my model mentioned the volatile nature of her family upbringing and how strong emotions and interactions were handled in her household. She explained that her family kept two sets of china on hand; one set for eating off of and the other for throwing. That was a very interesting way of dealing with sibling rivalries and parent/child conflicts, I thought. I also wondered how such a method would have panned out in my childhood home, with eight children. Imagine the piles of pottery shards!

At the base of the figure in my drawing, I placed two plates. One has hints of decoration that would ascribe its use to "good eating off of" china. The other is the plain, throwing variety. I wondered, if my friend’s china throwing exploits had some deeper, Mediterranean roots, as she described this habit as having been derived from the Mediterranean side of her family. In ancient Athens, for instance, citizens used ostracons on which to inscribe their voting preferences in deciding who to exile from a community - hence the root of the word ostracize. Perhaps over the millennia, groups of people decided to skip the writing on the pottery step and just fling it at people they disagreed with.

My old friend, who posed for this sketch, often used language to describe her interactions with people in a very purposeful way that often seemed to involve propulsion. Phrases like "I had to jettison that person out of my life," come to mind. The person in question then, becomes the flung pottery. I think that my preferred phrase in situations involving unresolvable conflict was more along the lines of "cut that person loose." Which is worse? Flung at? Flung out? Or just let drop?

July 14, 2017

A Tapestry in a Drawing

The second of my three recently completed 11" x 14" pencil drawings is "Man with a Hoop." In this drawing, the position of Dexter, the model, is echoed by a classic painting by Renoir, "Girl with a Hoop." This painting on the wall, as most of the other details in the drawing, were not in the original sketch made so many years ago in graduate school when I seemed to have an exceptionally short attention span. Other details that required fleshing out a bit were the container plant as well as the elaborate details in the fabric wall hanging.

It was a rainy day when I finished this drawing, so I had to haul the large potted plant up to the back porch and sit in the sunroom floor to render it in to the drawing. When choosing the fabric for the background I had a moment of self-effacement. I originally started reaching for my book on African fabric designs and then had to ask myself why I was doing that. This man was from New Jersey and was educated in an upscale school where he had designed his own program of study. Besides, I had already included a French Impressionist painting in the background. Being a man of the world, Dexter could easily have had a reproduction of that in his living space. So instead of thinking of the man as a shape, I decided to allude to his worldliness by making an elaborate quilt in the background. For this I used a pattern from our small collection of fabrics. My husband had found this piece in Winchester, Virginia and had to have it. I’ve attached a sample on the right so readers can enjoy the colors as well as the patterns.

The drawing itself is like a woven tapestry, curves echoing other curves, repeated shapes, and forms connecting in interesting ways.

July 11, 2017

Goya's Capricho No. 42 Is Now in an Odd Place

My intricate drawing that was only in progress when I wrote my last post is now finished. I often do not have a specific plan when I work on drawings, but rather, pull in elements from immediate observations and impressions. The design on the figure’s dress was plucked from an observation of the century plant growing in my front yard. Here is a picture of this lovely succulent with its pointed leaves and shadowy patterns.

The day I finished the drawing I was listening to scene three from Verdi’s Don Carlo. It was my original intention to include a painting within the drawing that alluded to Don Carlo. But the scene in question was a shadowy vision of the Spanish Inquisition. Who to better illustrate the Spanish Inquisition than Francisco de Goya. Goya is famous for a series of eighty aquatints satirizing the excesses of the Catholic church. These were called the Caprices, or Los Caprichos. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/30/nyregion/goyas-etchings-of-a-dark-and-complicated-past.html  Probably the most famous is the one about the sleep of reason producing fools. But that one didn’t suit and I instead chose Capricho No. 42, which depicted men carrying donkeys on their backs. It did occur to me while I was drawing these that some among my contemporaries would think that I was satirizing the Democratic Party. And was not Bill Clinton president number 42? But I told myself, "Nah, nobody’s going to think of that."

To my astonishment someone did read my blog post. I forwarded an image of the newly finished drawing to him and he asked if just might be satirizing the Democratic party. Oh! Woe is me! Unintended satires creeping in to my work! Is my brain now on automatic satire pilot?

It looks like this will take a bit more reading and research in order to ascertain, if possible, what Goya meant by Capricho No. 42. Then I might have something to say about what it is doing in my drawing.

July 4, 2017

The Fourth of July with a Drawing and Don Carlo

I am working on a slow drawing today. The basic design is complete and I am filling in the details. As I work I listen to music. Today I listen to Verdi’s Don Carlo. Don Carlo is probably Verdi’s most complex and ingenious operas. Set against the infamous Spanish Inquisition, it is also his darkest and most menacing.

In times of trouble, such as what Americans face today, I often seek both solace and understanding in art. I do so because although some come very close, the talking heads in the news media never seem to get it quite right. Then I find the answer in art - in the greatness of Don Carlo. There was one particular scene in this opera that so chillingly encapsulates all that happens in love, rejection, vengeance and the abrogation of humanity in favor of fanatic ideology. This is the scene of Filippo’s (King Phillip) aria and then duet with The Grande Inquisitore. In previous scences, we come to know of the engagement of King Phillip’s son, Don Carlo, to the princess of France. The King, however, decides to break that engagement and marry the princess himself. That does not go particularly well, especially since this is opera.

Before the curtain opens the music is sublime, plaintive and sad. The scene opens with King Phillip alone at his desk in a dark room. He is crying piteously about being a lonely old man with a young wife who does not love him. It is a heart wrenching scene and almost makes the listener cry in sympathy (this listener does), as Phillip describes the sad look of his wife, his nights alone in bed. His bed a crypt. We are wrenched inside as well, because who has not known the sting of rejection and isolation?

Then the scene changes. Almost as if summoned telepathically by Phillip’s sorrow, The Grande Inquisitore is at his door. The mood is altered from one of sadness to one of menace. If ever music captured evil, it is that terrible sound of string basses and horns that accompanies the entry of the Inquisitore through the immense black doors of Phillip’s chambers - flung open seemingly on their own like the gates of Hell. It chills one to the bone.

The Inquisitore is the personification of irrational fanaticism, literally blind as a metaphor to his blindness to reason. His eyes are black and lifeless voids as he asks if the King is present. The King acknowledges that he is present and had summoned this terrible visitor. Then to our horror, we see Phillip’s deportment change from one slighted in love to one bent on revenge. This is all the more horrible for me in that I cannot make that cognitive shift from pity to repugnance quickly enough as Phillip is now actively engaged in plotting with the Grande Inquisitore to kill his only son and rival, Don Carlo. And that is the genius of Don Carlo - in that we know in that instant how easy it is to shift from rejection to hatred, from victim to victimizer.

But that is when it dawned upon me that this is also where we are at in my country. How devastating it is to think that a collective sorrow would summon evil. But how often has this been the case in history? Many social historians contend, for instance, that the social and economic strain of Weimar Germany ushered in Hitler’s Germany. Tyrants sniff out discontent and use it to their advantage. How easy it is then, for them to sink their talons in to those who cry for help.

At the end of what is probably one of the most moving scenes in opera, King Phillip’s last line, after the Grande Inquisitore departs, is "The crown bows to the altar." Governance submits to blind fanaticism. It is a cautionary tale that perhaps can only best be represented by such an enduring art form. To see for oneself, here is the link to the scene in question from Verdi’s Don Carlo. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ph6p1Mtpp18&list=RDPh6p1Mtpp18#t=0   I will keep listening as I work on my drawing. Perhaps there will be some surprises when I complete this woman in front of a quilt.

June 11, 2017

Eighty Black and White Drawings

Sometimes others offer suggestions that might be not bad ideas, but I resist acting upon them because they involve a lot of time and energy with no certain rewards. Yet I have followed two of them. The first one was to create a digital catalogue of my art works, replete with images, descriptions and catalogue numbers. It was a lot of work at first to hunt down older works and to scan old slides. But now I make it a daily habit to catalogue. At the very least, it makes images always at the ready to send to a client, upload to a web site, or have on hand for someone who might be writing about my work.

The second piece of advice also required a lot of work, but not fortunately not nearly as much cataloguing a life’s work. This second piece of advice I actually heard twice. And since I heard it twice it seemed like it would be worth considering. I had written a book of poetry many years ago for just over one hundred small square paintings. Someone at an exhibition of these paintings suggested I do them all over again as black and white drawings and create a book out of them. "Black and white would be so much more economical to print," he added.

Last year a friend helped create a PDF file of the book in color. "You might think about doing all these over again as drawings, as black and white would be so much easier to print," she mentioned. It would have been easiest at that point to simply suggest converting the color book into a black and white book, but I saw an opportunity here in that many of my paintings were created from drawings. Since these were only studies they were hastily done and not intended as finished products. But since I was already do so much work on paper I decided to flesh out these old drawings, creating new drawings when there were no preparatory sketches.

As the months have rolled by on this project, I’ve put together a nice collection of figurative drawings. I had settled on doing about eighty drawings and have just passed the halfway point at forty-four completions. The last two, the drawing for "The Contortion," and the drawing for "The Red Shirt" are here. But how, exactly does one convey the feeling of a red shirt in a black and white drawing?

June 9, 2017

Recycled Drawings

Going solar as well as going with a green roof on my house have both proven to be untenable. One for lack of sunshine, the other for lack of consensus. So I will be needing to do other things to reduce my carbon footprint. I do the usual recycling, composting of perishables, and although it’s a strain we’re holding out with just one car.

This week, I decided to recycle bad drawings. Hmmm...bad drawings. My client’s agent told her this week that all my drawings were bad, but that’s another story. Let’s just say that I’m recycling the drawings that I personally don’t like but are on decent paper that I wish to reuse rather than discard.

I chose a large charcoal and pastel drawing and applied an eraser to it. Scrubbing out the drawing in a rhythmic way created a ground texture that forms a new platform from which to work. The seated lady still comes through, ghost-like, so I decide to play with her form. Another figure enters...a man strolling and swinging a suitcase. I had grabbed him off the internet. Now the lady sprouts extra arms like a Tibetan goddess. Colors are added and something quite different emerges from the original.

Most of my work this summer will be like this. New drawings will be made from old ones until I run out of paper.   I hope that my paper does not run out before my inspiration to do this!

June 4, 2017

Science Marches On

Six weeks ago I took part in the South Carolina branch of the March for Science. There was something special about this march, a gathering really, of enthusiastic supporters of science and inspiring speakers. It occurred to me that this is really an ongoing march - a rally for fact based writing and research, a rally for responsible health care, a rally to side with those who put responsibility for the preservation of our planet’s resources above partisan politics.
I have not taken part in a rally since then, but have contacted a few of the speakers at this initial rally in hopes of finding out more about them. I heard back from just two, Professor Tameria Warren, and the poet Tara Powell. They make for an interesting contrast, Professor Warren so quiet and reflective and Ms. Powell so exuberant. Her rousing poem, "Incident Report," is published on the web for all: http://jasperproject.org/what-jasper-said/llxk9y9mslnkfyw7dt22gl9ahn5h96
Professor Warren, by contrast, sent me a hand written speech which seemed more like a private, intimate letter of concern. I felt a certain sense of honor to receive it. Her speech made a pithy yet earnest appeal for science education, especially to train youth of color, for it is more often than not their communities that bear the brunt of science skeptics, climate change deniers, and corporate greed over community need.
For my part, I made two more painted snakes appealing for proper, affordable health care for the citizens of this country. I hold out hope that one day we will have a sensible and empathetic government that truly represents the needs of its people. I have been giving alternative names to these painted snakes, based upon precious objects. These two are the turquoise snake and the ruby snake.
The painted snakes, in their bold messages from afar and intricate patterns up close, represent how I experience the world of science. Many think of science as an agglomeration of facts and figures that lead us to correct conclusions about reality. To me, science is about the infinite revealed through the wonders of scale. Like Tara Powell’s poem , science points outward towards the cosmos, evinced by the solar system worn on her son’s head. Science is also like professor Warren’s analysis of community, plunging ever inwards towards the structure of things. It is both micro and macrocosmic depending upon how we direct our gaze. How deep can we go? How far outward can we see?

Many are angered at the disrespect leveled at science today. I am saddened by those who would cut themselves off from the wonder of scale, from the desire to extend vision, hearing and touch out towards the universe and down to the very core of being.

Wraith Infirmity Muses Literary Magazine

Three drawings from my book manuscript, You Look Great! Making Invisible Disease Visible, were published today in Wraith Infirmity Literary Magazine.  The drawings illustrate various aspects of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.  I will discuss more about the individual drawings later.
https://wraithinfirmitymuses.wordpress.com/wraith-infirmity-muses-volume-1-1-spring-17/

June 3, 2017

A Congress of Crows

Last night I finished an illustration for Kristina Miller’s book Woodland Harmonies. The story was cleverly didactic and featured crows as the main characters. Although a children’s story in format, it has very much an adult theme - the crows get together after work to meet at a local bar in a tree called, naturally, The Crow Bar. Getting tipsy, they start to become, as Miller puts it, "a raucous caucus," and decide to challenge each other to a nest building contest. They then divide themselves into distinctly dysfunctional groups. One group has a dictatorial leader who tolerates no constructive input from the rest of the group. Others are overly analytical and can never seem to get the project started. Clearly they represent human dynamics at its worst as they attempt to build hopelessly ludicrous nests. Fortunately the story has a happy ending, with the one egalitarian group volunteering to help repair the nests of the other groups and show them how these things are done (had that group not had as much to drink?)

While doing some background research for the project, I came across a list of names for gatherings of different types of birds. A group of crows is called a congress of crows. Congress. Now that was a word I was trying to avoid thinking about these days. I noticed that there was no word for a gathering of booby birds. A senate of boobies anyone?

April 26, 2017

Eggs of Concrete - Over But Not Easy

The long awaited tree removal finally took place this spring. We had two immense pine trees downed last autumn by Hurricane Matthew. Like many folks in Orangeburg, we were put on a long waiting list for tree removal. Months rolled by, with everything in disarray and no way to get to the broken fence and the steady accumulation of seasonal debris. In a final act of exasperation, my husband contracted with city workers to come over to our house after work at the local park. They removed the trees alright, but left a path of destruction in the wake of the heavy equipment. Insurance covered neither the property damage, nor the damage from the removal. Cement walls were toppled, hillsides gauged out, gardens plowed under and a large cement platform in the corner of the yard cracked beyond repair. So for the last three months, I rolled up my sleeves and set to work repairing the yard as best as I could on my own. During the restoration, I made a number of discoveries and even found inspiration for some art work.

Inspiration can come from unusual sources. The only art work I completed recently, other than my giant painted snakes for science, were paintings of large egg shapes. Looking at them one might conclude that they are symbols of life or fertility. They are not. They were inspired by the shapes of the huge cement slabs I was trying to remove on my own but could not - until I carved them in to egg shapes and rolled them down my driveway. The largest cement "eggs" had to be manually rolled out to the street. The smaller ones, albeit still quite large, could be rolled in to a wheelbarrow and taken out that way.

My three paintings of cement eggs were painted on Masonite. I found that the stamps I had created for my science snakes fit nicely in to the oblong shapes. The acrylic paint was mixed with mica dust and the impasto texture with washes on top created a nice texture - like paint on a rock face.

For the final painting, I used sized paper. Here I used a number of large and small stamps. The small round stamps were inspired by the granite stones found in the cement aggregate. The large leaf stamps were fashioned after the leaves from the magnolia tree I passed on my route to the street. In the very center of my concrete egg, I placed a red print from a stone seal that was carved for me by a Chinese calligrapher some decades ago. The words read "persist until the very end." Three months was a long time to persist in cement removal.

April 24, 2017

Science Snakes and the Science March in Columbia, South Carolina - and a Sister in Sarasota

Saturday, April 22 arrived. That long awaited date for the Earth Day/Science march on Washington was here. It was time to debut my science snakes at the sister march in Columbia, SC. The snakes, painted with elaborate designs of acrylic washes, mono printing with large stamps, mica dust and graphite, were stuffed the day before and their "rattle" tails added. In keeping with the Earth Day theme, for the most part the snakes were stuffed with recycled materials. The narrow snakes came in to firm three dimensional being when filled with large plastic gallon jugs for bottled water. The thicker snakes were filled with a combination of bubble wrapped plastic gallon jugs as well as recycled Styrofoam peanuts. To ensure a good fit and prevent leakage of the peanuts, these were first wrapped in recycled plastic supermarket bags - lest my science snakes become the giant peanut pooping pythons. Stuffing the snakes took much longer than anticipated. I learned from previous experience that if the peanuts are not condensed enough, the snake becomes floppy and difficult to carry. So I rather tediously chopped up the Styrofoam peanuts before stuffing each bag.

The open center section of each of the shorter snakes ( front and back of the larger snakes) was sealed with velcro. Placing individual bags inside the snakes as well as using units of plastic gallon jugs enabled me to pull one of these out of the center section in order to collapse the snakes in to halves or thirds. Modest engineering skills to be sure, but this did enable us to fit these giant serpents in to the back of our van.

Thankfully, we had help. Our friend and colleague Si Hui, who teaches Chinese at the nearby university, rode in with my husband and I to Columbia. We were preceded by our friends Lee Malerich and her husband Glen, who took two snakes in the back of their car. Since Lee and Glen made it to the State House ahead of us, meeting up with daughter and grandson, they obligingly paraded around the state house grounds with the Vaccine Snake and the National Parks snake. The youngest activist for science of their entourage, carried the head of the snake.

It was a sunny and hot day. I was much too over-heated to carry snakes, let alone stand and listen to the talks. Yet and interesting solution presented itself to this strained body: the snakes fit almost perfectly on the steps of the State House. So there we placed them there - like offerings from some giant cat of mythological proportions. I then sequestered myself under various shade trees and on the dark side of walls, dousing water on my face to keep my dysautonomia at bay. To my delight, and to the glee of everyone who helped, the snakes were photographed numerous times. One dramatic view even made its way to The State newspaper.

The artful science snakes were a colorful attraction, and hopefully encouraged participation. I thought of the one snake who was not present, The Jade Snake for the EPA. I had sent him off to my cousin in Sarasota for their sister march. My cousin graciously offered to sew this for me, as I had no sewing machine and sewing these things by hand was getting quite tedious. The picture at right features EPA snake marching along in Sarasota.

There were numerous other very creative signs at the state house march; A Don’t Tread on DNA sign, a man dressed in a lab coat and leaf underwear bearing a sign which read, "Without science you are naked and afraid." I could not see many of these closely as the security officers at the march told me that I was obliged to sit by my snakes. So I was rather glued to my spot at the state house steps, thwarted in my desire to mingle and visit booths.

What I could do, but also sometimes just barely due to a hearing deficit, was listen to the speeches. There were sixteen presenters altogether, representing scientists, science teachers, science advocates, two poets, and spiritual leaders. For the heat of the day, and the frailty of my body, it was probably sixteen too many. (Indeed, I noticed that other satellite science marches, such as the one in Asheville, NC limited their speakers to four) And yet provocative phrases from their talks made their way to my ears and in to my consciousness from time to time - enough to warrant closer scrutiny and investigation. But how?

Who has not attended a rally, heard talks while distracted by time, weather, and discomfort, and wondered what they might have missed? For most rally attendees with robust attention spans and stalwart bodies, hopefully not as much as myself. And yet, the forcefulness of emcee Arik Bjorn’s exhortations to make the science march a continuum did resonate to my soul and intellect, as did his stern warning about the dire state of affairs with regard to South Carolina’s standing in education nationally. It was serious enough stuff to inspire me to review my program notes and contact all presenters personally to inquire about transcripts of speeches.

Fortunately the first person to respond to my inquiry was keynote speaker professor Hector Flores, from the South Carolina Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics. His was a short, yet beautifully written speech which encapsulated all the exaltation and wonder of science along with the trepidation about how scientific details may be lost in the deluge of social media discourse. I was glad to have the opportunity to peruse his statements again as it touched upon my own concerns regarding social media - great for staying in touch, not always good for accuracy or depth. And I loved the allusions to Darwin and Wallace. As an artist also in possession of a biology degree, some of my favorite writings come from 19th century science texts illustrated by the authors. (Alexander Von Humboldt comes to mind here). https://www.scgssm.org/sites/default/files/march_for_science_talk_april_22_2017.pdf

Professor Duncan Buell, from the University of South Carolina, had his speech on Computer Science and Engineering already online for review. It was an interesting reflection on how we may forget how relatively new the internet really is and how support for cyber security is so crucial, given the vast amount of data on line. Vulnerable databases do make one a little itchy just thinking about it.

Today I packed away my painted snakes, as I await correspondence. I look forward to keeping the dialogue open and minds receptive. 

March 25, 2017

Jade Snake for Earth Day

The muslin wrapping, or skin, of my next Liberty Snake for Earth Day has just been painted. This one took about two days to paint for the overlapping patterns and textures. This time I used a series of small stamps to build up the patterns. 
As this project is progressing, I am interpreting "snake" with greater artistic license. They are increasingly just long paintings with a head and a tail. In fact the head and tails even have different patterns. For this last snake, I even painted both sides of the snake with different patterns. And looking towards a future when someone might like to have one, I now only letter the slogan on one side, leaving a proud owner of the work the option of hanging the work with just the design side showing. 

My pet name for this snake is The Jade snake, so named for the vibrant dark blues and greens. It reminds me of some of the dark jades I used to see in China. Jade snake is embellished on one side with prints of leaves. It seemed fitting for Earth Day. His slogan calls for the preservation of the EPA. My reading material for my painting this week has been a history of the Environmental Protection Agency. We need it.  

I am hoping to find someone with a sewing machine willing to have a try at sewing this snakes up. I fear though, that they might be too heavy and that I’ll be obliged to painstakingly stitch them by hand. I was originally going to make ten. I might just cap this project at seven.

March 22, 2017

A Liberty Snake for Zika Vaccine

I have returned to my Liberty Snake project. In order to decide what to write on the snakes for The Science March on Washington I have been doing more science reading. I just finished a book on climate change. Yesterday I read up on the Zika virus. After reading CDC reports, a great op ed piece by Bernie Sanders, and a New York Times magazine article on families in Brazil raising zika brain damaged children, I lettered "Don’t Tread on Our Right to Vaccines" on my white snake.

Follow the links here to the original articles: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/11/health/zika-virus-brazil-birth-defects.html?_r=0

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/10/opinion/bernie-sanders-trump-should-avoid-a-bad-zika-deal.html?_r=0

The patterns on the snake were mostly done with large stamps over acrylic washes. Details were painted on with metallic pigments and liquid graphite. The colors were influenced, rather oddly, by the costumes in a performance I was watching of Der Rosenkavalier, by Richard Strauss - all those silks, satins and lace!

Certainly the festive colors on the snake belie a sobering story. What Bernie Sanders is railing against, and rightfully concerned about, is Trump’s potential "deal" with a French pharmaceutical company, giving them sole rights to the vaccine. Putting these rights in the hands of private industry would mean that they can set any price they want to for the vaccine. Senator Sanders points out that American Taxpaper money has already been spent, to the tune of billions, for the CDC to develop the vaccine. Now if a pharmaceutical company is given free reign to charge anything they want to dispense it, we essentially have to pay twice. But perhaps the ultimate danger here is that zika, as we have seen in the infants born with devastating microcephaly (mini-brain), potentially has broad implications for our public health.  We have a man heading our Health and Human Services who belongs to a fringe organization that does not believe in mandatory vaccines, (and who refused to answer the question about whether he supports mandatory vaccination at his confirmation hearing) a president who has superstitions about vaccines and may be setting up a system that could financially discourage citizens from getting the vaccine.

Could this mean that the U.S. might end up like Brazil? Babies born with a profound birth defect to mostly the poor and the young? I think possibly yes. We live in a country where there has been a growing indifference to civic responsibilities - if it doesn’t affect me then why bother? And our present administration encourages that shirking of responsibility towards our fellow citizens - all in the name of "freedom of choice." Men don’t give birth to babies so why should they have to get a vaccine? Never mind that zika can be sexually transmitted to a pregnant woman. I’ve already heard plenty of conservative males complaining that they shouldn’t have to pay for insurance that also covers the health care needs of women (although they’re often okay with women having to pay for health care needs peculiar to men). Rather foreshadows a potential debacle ahead if this sentiment extends to vaccinations.

March 20, 2017

Abolish the NEA? An Observation about the Old Debate

For the past week, I have been trying various methods to manage a downturn in health. My approach to pain management is perhaps somewhat unconventional but effective for me. I sit underneath a warm blanket, take my antibiotics, sip my warm liquids and read government documents. It took a whole day to read The National Endowment of the Arts, A History: 1965 -2008. It was exciting, informative and thought provoking literature for me. It felt, at least in a tangential way, autobiographical. The NEA was founded when I was just eight years old, in 1965. In my own life time of devotion to creating art, educating about art, and developing a non profit art corporation I’ve seen many social and economic changes with regard to who funds art, how it is funded, and for what purpose. That is why this book I was reading paralleled my own life in many ways and felt more like an intimate reminiscence than an objective historical overview.

The day after I finished reading this document, a former colleague brought George Will’s opinion piece in the Washington Post to my attention. It was funny to read his calls for the dismantling of this agency after reading the NEA document because here was an example of history repeating itself in the person of the same dark knight that was trotted out by the media when the NEA was going to be dismantled under President Ronald Reagan. The man and his message have not changed at all, despite time, change and opportunities to learn. This time, Mr. Will has others who rally to the cause, albeit in slightly different ways. Having worked so long in the arts and having just read a history, perhaps now would be a good time to take a fresh look at an old struggle in hopes of finding better ways of forming solutions.

Firstly, meaningful discourse can only happen when people are on the same page with regard to facts and actual occurrences. This happened. How do we feel about it? Are there different ways to solve the problem? But around controversial issues, like the recent calls to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts, for instance, a simple formula seems to be promulgated that serves no one well. The formula is this: A conservative writer writes a piece that includes a range of misleading presentations, out of context observations, and fragmentary information. The liberal, or left leaning response is to wax sentimental about how we feel about such things, throw platitudes at it if feeling philosophical, or invectives if feeling outraged. Little to no fact checking seems to be involved. So we end up with different interpretations of alternate realities from which no one can possibly learn anything because nothing consequential or evidence based is presented.

I will illustrate with two example of a conservative’s call to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts. The first comes from George Will. Here is a link to his article. http://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2017/03/the_nea_is_a_government_frill.html I would like to examine a statement from this article:

" Let’s pretend counterfactually that the NEA no longer funds the sort of rubbish that once immersed it in the culture wars, e.g. "Piss Christ" (a photo depicting a crucifix immersed in a jar of the artist’s urine" and "Genital Wallpaper" (don’t ask). What, however, is art?" -George Will

First of all, counterfactually is not a word. Let’s pretend that George Will means "counter to the facts" or counter factually. This implies to me that George Will thinks that not only has the NEA funded this "rubbish" in the past but is continuing to do so. He doesn’t help us out much by not including the context, time, place or even so much as the artists’ names so it forces readers to do some research - if they are so inclined and unfortunately most are not. Nor do they have the time and energy. Writers like Mr. Will count on that.

First, let’s look at context. The "Piss Christ" debacle, as well as the "Genital Wallpaper" incident, are both about three decades old. "Piss Christ" was a piece that was included in an exhibition funded by the NEA. "Genital Wallpaper" alludes to an artwork that was not funded by the NEA. (In other words, not true). "Piss Christ" was indeed a photograph of an ivory colored crucifix surrounded by a murky gold. I recall seeing the original photograph some decades ago. It was actually not offensive to me. The title was what people found offensive - that mixing up of the sacred and vulgar - and the fact that it confessed to being the artist’s own body fluid. The artist was photographer Andres Serrano, and submerging objects into bodily fluids and photographing them was how he made his pictures in the late 1980's. http://www.artnet.com/artists/andres-serrano/ His work caused great controversy and brought such criticism to the NEA that the agency’s then director had to resign and the agency never fully recovered from the negative media hype, and neither did our country’s artists. That was three decades ago. Contrary to George Will’s "facts" this is not an ongoing phenomenon. In fact, the debacle of the late 1980's and early 1990's "culture wars" caused the NEA to shift its policy and not award grants to individual artists. And it has been that way for the past thirty years. Poets, writers, musicians welcome. Visual artists and all your descendants not. The issue remains one of controversy. Interestingly, the visual artists who were the centers of those controversies from the so-called "culture wars" of the late 1980's were largely performance artists, and one could argue that their performances were really theater rather than visual art. One of my former graduate school professors from Parsons School of Design in New York, felt that to be the case. http://www.nytimes.com/1994/11/03/arts/endowment-ends-program-helping-individual-artists.html Nevertheless, an American painter or sculptor will be required to pay ad infinitum for a few artist’s acts from three decades ago, not only financially, but in the court of public opinion, media exposure, and in access to recognition. A thirty year old sculptor may now pay a penalty for things that performance artists did before she was even born. Is that fair? I wonder how Congress, who had pressured the NEA for restrictions on artists, would feel if they had their free health care revoked for several decades and perhaps permanently because Congressman Joe Wilson shouted "You Lie!" at President Barack Obama during the State of the Union address back in 2009? Doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat, Republican or Independent, you’re a Congressman and a Congressman was rude several years ago so we’re taking away all your funding permanently. Permanently! And don’t expect tax payers to fund your travel, your election campaigns, your meals.

The second art work that George Will alludes to in his opinion piece is ostensibly the work of Robert Gober. Contrary to George Will’s "facts" again, Robert Gober was not funded by the NEA. The reason why his work (it does indeed include white traced drawings of genitalia on black wall boards), comes up in association with the NEA is that the artist sued the NEA for not funding his exhibition. This incident is also about three decades old. I wrote to George Will recently with a polite request for him to correct his mistake. I doubt anything will come of my request and most assuredly the false information will continue to spread like wildfire.

The next conservative call to abolish the NEA that I wish to have a closer look at comes from the Boston Globe. This one is interesting because the writer shares with his readers examples of artists and art organizations that "thrived" without government support. The writer is conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby and his illustrious examples of non-government supported artists are Aaron Copland, Phyllis Wheatley and myriad Shakespeare companies, the last of which he graciously supplies a link to.

https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2017/02/28/scrap-nea-and-america-arts-scene-will-thrive/FIUUzXoTbG6sOzwK0QdMQL/story.html

Following this link on the last one I see that these groups have been funded by the NEA. That would seem to undermine his premise a bit but we’ll move on. How about Aaron Copland? Aaron Copland was a strong supporter of government support for the arts and even chaired an early panel on the NEA. Copland’s own work was supported by the government of France through his study at the Fontainebleau Conservatory. Hardly an example of an artist without government support. And then we come to poor Phyllis Wheatley, an early colonial African American poet. She was not supported by the American colonists financially, except with room and board by the couple who purchased her. Funding for her first publication of poetry was found nevertheless through a British patron. Perhaps her money did not come from the American government - there wasn’t one at the time - but it did indeed have to come from somewhere. But was she "thriving" as Jacoby proposes? Her biographers tell us that she died in abject poverty, unable to sell her work, at age 31: "She was reduced to a condition too loathsome to describe. ... In a filthy apartment, in an obscure part of the metropolis ... . The woman who had stood honored and respected in the presence of the wise and good ... was numbering the last hours of life in a state of the most abject misery, surrounded by all the emblems of a squalid poverty!"


https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/phillis-wheatley

So much for thriving without support. But I must confess, that despite the fact that Jacoby would like to see artists thrown in to the sink or swim American economy alone without a government life jacket, I almost felt sorry for him with the attacks levied upon his column from fellow Bostonians of a more liberal bent of mind. Still, I could not help but wonder why they were calling him out for his conservatism but not for his facts, which would seem to be more immediately pertinent? I wrote to Jeff Jacoby recently to inquire as to why he did not come up with examples that would serve to bolster his opinion instead of negate it. Why not, for instance, include an artist like Jan Steen, who supported himself in seventeenth century Holland by running an inn?

In the upcoming months, there will probably be much more debate on whether or not the NEA should be "scrapped" to use Jacoby’s term, or seen as an expendable "frill" to quote George Will. I would hope that in this upcoming debate, discussions can be based upon facts rather than rhetoric, with the media being more responsible for fact checking and respondents more discerning about what stories they share. For a history of the National Endowment for the Arts, here is a link to an online book that provides an in depth look into what has actually been funded from 1965 to 2009. https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/nea-history-1965-2008.pdf It is a document well worth reading for anyone who wants to know better the history of government support for historic preservation ( the founding of the American Film Industry for the preservation of early black and white films is one fine example) early support of individual artists , bringing arts to under-served communities, museums and veterans. The Obama years have not been included in this text. Despite his education, Barack Obama does not seem to have been a truly ardent supporter of the arts and humanities. Any commentary on what was actually funded during his tenure on my part will require more reading.

I will continue to advocate for retaining a National Endowment for the Arts. I might just suggest that it actually be expanded and that grants to individual visual artists be restored again. Why beg when it is would seem appropriate to demand justice and equality?

*It is early yet but I have not received replies from my inquiries or requests to George Will or Jeff Jacoby. I’m certain they are deluged with emails and mine would not be considered of much importance. But I will post a response if I do get one. For now, I can at least answer George Will’s question, "What is art?" That part is simple: art is what an artist makes. If the artist is fortunate then someone pays for it.

February 17, 2017

Reflections on the Gottman Ratio and Why We Rember Bad Things Better Than Good Ones

I had an interesting conversation recently with a patient in a support group for people with rare and poorly understood illnesses. She wrote about the frustrations of dealing with a medical system that is not structured in a way that would benefit patients with complex, time-consuming conditions. Other patients have frequently noted that the doctor-patient relationship is often fraught with tensions due to lack of time, resources and expertise. The patient in question related a particularly bad experience she had with a physician. I thought about it a moment then asked her if the better doctors outweighed the bad one. She said perhaps it should but she remembers that bad doctor more acutely than the others.

I had to admit, despite having some very good doctors on my own team, I have had a similar experience. Despite the doctors who worked so hard on my case and were congenial, the face of a doctor who left me in great pain and simply smirked at me when I complained of pain seems to have burned a more vivid memory in my brain. That made me curious. Is there a reason why we remember bad experiences and the people who dispense them more vividly than good ones? And could it perhaps simply be wired in to our genes to do so as a biological necessity?

Some researchers have studied this aspect of human memory and do indeed come to an evidence based conclusion that the bad most definitely outweighs the good and that bad memories are secured more indelibly into our brains and are more easily retrieved. Some of these researchers speculate that this might be an evolutionary key to survival. It just might secure your survival to have a better memory of a large animal that was intent on devouring you than for one that was a vegetarian.

There may even be a relationship between the body’s chemistry in a state of excitement and the way memory is recorded. This has great social and educational implications. There is buried deep in the medical literature, for instance, findings that point to fear of punishment being a better impetus to learning than reward. Uh oh! Bring out that yardstick! (Seriously, I’m not advocating a return to corporal punishment in the classroom).

The hard wiring and activation of bad memories over good ones, however useful it may have been in the preservation of our species, could most certainly cause some havoc in modern day life. The patients who have had bad experiences with doctors, for instance, may avoid seeking prompt and necessary medical attention. People who have had a bad experience with someone of a different race or gender would be vulnerable to developing a harmful bias, then, in their future interactions with a member of the "threatening group." And the implications for partisan politics is disturbing.

There is some research to demonstrate that "bad experience" may be not only apply to personal experience in real life but in second hand experience through story telling as well. I have experience with a transferred narrative after a prolonged stay in The People’s Republic of China. At the time my husband and I resided in China, we came to know elderly people who experienced the Japanese invasion of their homeland during World War II. Their first hand accounts of rape, torture and murder were horrifying. The telling and re-telling of these incidents over the course of four years served to etch a fairly strong anathema in to my brain. Their narrative became my narrative. As a consequence I found it impossible to interact socially with Japanese men of my own time in my own generation and I carried those sentiments with me after leaving China.

A transference from the Sino-Japanese war shaped my consciousness in a way that I did not like. I felt that something had to be done to extricate this negativity from my brain. The solution for me at the time was to offer English lessons to Japanese men from a local corporation. I got to know them and some of their wives. They were fine people who helped balance a weight implanted by another people from another time. (1)

I later applied the above soul cleansing principle to my first hand negative experiences with about ten neurologists by reading the works of Oliver Sacks, a famously empathetic neurologist. To my amazement I found that this author and I shared the same interests in art and fascination with paleo-botany. Sacks was refreshing to say the least but perhaps not quite enough to undo the damage of bad medical experiences. Why?

I found an explanation for this is in my reading about the Gottman ratio. This ratio was formulated by Dr. John Gottman’s experiments in human relationships, tabulating exactly how many positive interactions or experiences it would take to offset the negative. His experiments suggested that the number of good experiences needed to offset the bad were at least five to one. If correct, this five to one ratio explains much. It might explain why, for instance, when someone apologizes for an offense and we say "apology accepted," deep down we think "but not really." As Gottman would have it, five apologies would actually be needed to even the score. That would explain then, why three books by Oliver Sacks could not outdo ten bad neurology experiences - it would take fifty!

The Gottman ratio can be daunting to consider not only with regard to how negative experience received might permanently color one’s perception of others, but how a negative comment or action dispensed would take five positive examples from people who might represent one’s perceived group to counter or offset the offense. So if I behave badly as an artist, at least in someone else’s perception of me, would it take five "good" artists to offset the damage? What about my behavior as a woman? As a liberal? As an American?

How might the Gottman ratio play out in virtual communication? Might this relationship ratio have a bearing in a larger social and political context? This brings me to one of the problems of political communications, in particular, Twitter. I do not have a twitter account, and wish not to have one. Frankly, the current United States president ruined any desire on my part to communicate via this medium. I do not wish to be inundated with these communications, and the responses to them. These days, I am thinking of social media communication venues such as Twitter within the framework of the Gottman ratio of five positive experiences to counter one negative. From what I have seen thus far in the published tweets from our tweeter-in-chief, for instance, there are so many insults to so many groups of people in so many parts of the world, a five to one ratio in terms of apologies needed to counter the negative effects of these put him in a deficit of about 35 billion by now. And yet he persists! Why? His claims are that he must counter the negativity of the media. Tone, in some cases, could rightly be more tempered, as our president’s own words should be sufficiently appalling enough when reflected back by the media mirror. I don’t need to be persistently told how bad they are. The public, myself included, does need to be told when words and actions are illegal, why they are illegal, and what to do about it. We need to know what proactive measures need to be taken to preserve a democracy, and not merely be subjected to a yelling match after the fact. For as Gottman points out with regard to his ratio, the yelling match may produce in broad socio-political terms, what occurs in interpersonal relationships: partisan divides etched ever more irrevocably and deeply into our social fabric. And it will remain there for easy retrieval, perhaps for generations to come.

My illustration for the Gottman ratio is one big bad rotten apple with worms offset by the five smaller good apples required to nullify it. One plus five equals zero. In Gottman terms, this is what it takes to nullify the rotten apple. I hope that my color drawing makes the bad apple big and rotten enough for people reflect on its presence. In the mean time, I will find some more books to read by Oliver Sacks and company, and emphasize positive protest to defend what I wish to preserve in my democracy.

And this just in: I notice the writing of a woman neurologist. Looks like a good apple!

Bibliography

Colleen Cancio "Do we remember bad times better than good?" 4 October 2011.
HowStuffWorks.com. 13 February 2017

Roy F. Baumeister "Bad is Stronger Than Good." 2001, Review of General Psychology, Vol. No 4 323-370

Susan S. Lang "Dopamine Linked to a Personality Trait and Happiness," 24 October 1996. Cornell Chronicle

Www.gottman.com The Gottman Institute

(1) Some acknowledgment is due here, however, to the usefulness of storytelling, good or bad, for the role that this also plays in the relating of tales that serve as cautionary, educational, or therapeutic. By this I mean those tales that serve as historical warnings, tales to overturn commonly held misconceptions, and narratives that renew faith in humanity and democratic institutions.

February 10, 2017

A Shrine to Common Sense

My art project, The Liberty Snakes, is underway again with snakes for science in the works. The Science March on Washington on Saturday, April 22, will have a sister march in Columbia, SC, which I hope to attend. I will post my snaky signs for this march as they progress.

In the mean time, I prepare for this physical march with a mental march. For it is not just climate change science that is under fire, but the entire realm of scientific thinking. And this has actually been going on for a long time. My experience teaches me that what is usually behind this is selfishness, laziness and greed. Greed for money, power, and attention. Laziness to get out of physical work and mental exertions. Selfishness in not sharing resources, influence and opportunity with those not within one’s own narrowly defined community. Exposed for what they are, they would be anathema to any clear, fair-minded person. That is why they must be marketed via appeals to the laziness, greed and selfishness in everyone via channels that strip people of their curiosity and reason.

In order to find the antidote to the above constrictions on intellectual liberty, perhaps the cure begins with sharpening the skills necessary to combat them. To this end, I am reading books on logic, the scientific method, psychology, and politics. I just finished reading Professor Brian M. Hughes’ book Rethinking Psychology: Good Science, Bad Science, and Pseudoscience. The book offers a good review of the basics in scientific method and logic, and then invites the reader along in "armed battle" to analyze the thinking, or sometimes the lack thereof, behind both contentious and accepted ideologies in the science of psychology.

I am now halfway through with Mike Hulme’s Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity. This book offers a thorough grounding in the history of anthropogenic climate change and the policies that have developed in response to scientific consensus.

My drawing for this post is called "A Shrine to Common Sense" and lists three methods of reasoning that might be useful to study and review; abductive, inductive, and deductive reason. Of course there is always the technique of just spewing off conjectures and "alternative facts." I like to call that seductive reasoning, as it requires little to no mental exertions. The Hindu reference in the shrine is something of an irony and refers to a doctor who once told me that sometimes, one has to reconcile oneself to the fact that despite cogitations and scientific work, definitive answers can sometimes be elusive, requiring great patience and common sense.

February 9, 2017

A Liberty Snake for Arts Advocacy Day with More to Come

My first Liberty Snake was rolled out in to the public sphere on Tuesday, February 7th, at the South Carolina State House. The "Don’t Tread on our Arts" snake, fashioned after the "Don’t Tread on Me" American Gadsden flag, was a lively presence at Arts Advocacy Day.


The snake was filled with recycled plastic bags filled with recycled styrofoam peanuts. A recycled plastic bottle filled with polyvinyl resin bits and small tacks made for a rattle. The corrugation on the plastic bottle even looked like a rattle snake’s rattle.

My next Liberty Snakes will be for the Science March on Washington. The skin of the first one is already painted and lettered. Fortunately, the Science March is not until April 22, so I still have some lead time for these.

Because my home is basically a small cottage, I am having to come up with ways to store these snakes when they are not in use. I came up with the idea of sealing them with velcro, so that they can be unzipped and emptied in between events. I may also change the filling to recycled gallon water bottles taped end to end. Perhaps I may fill these as well to make the snake very noisy indeed.

February 4, 2017

Liberty Snakes for All that is being Taken Away

Our former governor, Niki Haley, was always trying to cut off funding for the South Carolina State Arts Commission, which receives funding in part from the National Endowment for the Arts. Many artists and art supporters rallied against this and won. Six years ago I too, wrote letters and attended the Arts Advocacy Day carrying a large snake that Julia Wolfe and I had painted in her studio. The snake sign says "Don’t Tread on our Arts." We had a lot of fun with that snake at the State House as it was long enough to throw over a balcony to protesters on the other side of that balcony. It created an arch that legislators were obliged to walk under (Some of them got scared and took the long way around).

After the rally I gave the snake to the arts commission, thinking that I would never use it again. Was I ever wrong! It appears that we are now in need of many more "Liberty Snakes." I calculate if I painted one for every liberty that is now being threatened on a national level, it might require about a hundred or more snakes. So I have begun the task of creating them.

The rattle snake as a symbol of American protest is very old, as the rattle snake is indigenous only to North America. The very first political cartoon was of a snake divided, made by Benjamin Franklin, who had also apparently taunted the British with a tongue in cheek comment that he would ship our rattle snakes to them.  http://www.foundingfathers.info/stories/gadsden.html

The "Don’t Tread on Me" slogan is probably familiar to all, from the famous early Gadsden flag featuring a coiled up snake. Most of my own three dimensional snakes then, will carry the words "Don’t Tread On...." followed by whatever it is that lawmakers wish to take away from us. It seems to be much these days...the environment, climate science, civil rights, LGBT rights, reproductive rights. The list is endless. My drawing draft is just a rough mock up of some of the things the snakes could say. I welcome any more suggestions.

I have just enough muslin to make three long snakes. I could use more if anyone wishes to join me, please. I’ve begun to paint the "skins" downstairs in my studio by stretching the muslin across a long sheet of plywood and sizing with gesso. I apply a color texture with acrylic paint and stamped designs using bubble wrap. Because I am so bad at lettering I’m using stencils for the words. ( Dang that I left out the "t" in don’t on the "Don’t Tread on Our Humanities" sign and had to squeeze it in after the fact!).

I am open to suggestions and any offers of help for my Liberty Snake project. I am still a bit too much on the feeble side to attend long rallies personally but may in the future. Until then I could possibly lend the snakes out. Arts Advocacy Day in Columbia SC is coming up soon. I hope I have a snake ready.  Below is my snake, yet to be stuffed and sewn up.  That is why he still looks like someone really has tread upon him.