Naming Rights

Over the summer I bought a couple dozen wooden tic-tac-toe games gathered small items, icons and images that seemed to go together around a theme.

I called them  “shrines”.  When the pieces went up on Etsy, someone messaged me to ask why I called them shrines.

Uh-oh.  I’m in the Bible-belt.  I recognize a challenge when I see it.  What right do I have to use a religious-ish word any old way I choose?  Or, maybe the word “shrine” has some evil or graven-image-like pall to it so that I was perhaps advocating Harry Potter worship of some kind. It was a question, I thought, designed to flush me out into sacrilege territory, where I’d be an easy victim of religious certainty.

I hit the dictionary to determine if I could back up my shrines as shrines in a literal sense.  Various dictionaries defined “shrine” as:

  • A place of religious devotion or commemoration; a place where devotion is paid to a deity, or where the bones of a venerated person are interred; a container for sacred relics; a site hallowed by association with a revered person or object.  Under this last meaning, Independence Hall qualifies as a shrine to American Liberty.  (American Heritage Dictionary)
  • A place that is connected with a holy event or a holy person; a place that people like to visit and respect because it is associated with a venerated person or event.  This definition means that it’s okay to call Graceland a shrine to Elvis.  (Longman Dictionary)
  • A place or object hallowed by its associations.  (Merriam Webster)

So, at this point, I was satisfied that the word “shrine” could be used to describe something other than religion.  If it’s a good enough word for Independence Hall and Graceland, its good enough for me.  But, the definitions raised other questions about the appropriateness of my nomenclature.  What does it mean to “venerate” someone or something?  Is that the same as worshipping someone?  That would spit me right back out into sacrilege territory again.

And, what does it take for a place or person to be “commemorated” or “hallowed”?  Is this a decision to be made unilaterally by, say an artist, or does it require some sort of group action?  My head was spinning.  Had I misnamed my artwork?

Then, in an I-could-have-had-a-V8 moment, I realized it was my artwork.  And here is the rule for naming my artwork:  I get to call my pieces any damn thing I want.  Problem solved.

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Evocative Sights

Mother of God Santa Francesca, Rome 3rd-4th century Encaustic icon

A recent customer shared with me the memories and feelings that one of my collages evoked for her.  It got me thinking about the feelings triggered by things we see.  We’ve all seen people who so resemble someone else that we are compelled to call that person and tell them we’ve spotted their doppelgänger.   A glimpse of something similar to something else evokes memories that may feel good or terrible.

The way the brain processes information when we read is a good example of how we processes what we see.  A veteran reader reads faster than a new reader because, through her experience, she’s looked at so many letters, words, sentences, and patterns that her eye doesn’t have to register every single letter.  Instead, her eyes take in chunks and her brain fills in the rest using its own complicated system of probability.  What are the chances, our brain might say, that “a_d” is anything other than “and” . (A gross oversimplification, but you get the idea.)

But what about when visual images evoke connections and emotions that don’t relate to any memory we’re conscious of?  For example, recently I’ve been looking at medieval art – in particular icons – in preparation for teaching medieval history next year.  The images have taken my breath away.

French historiated initial with men slaying a monster, from a theological manuscript. 1110-1115

Until recently, I don’t think I’ve known how to appreciate art.  Until I began doing art myself, I don’t think I knew what to look for or how to feel about art.  So, it is as if a new dimension has opened up for me – an entire new way in which to view the world.  For a girl who has always dreamed in words rather than images, this is a big deal.

Mary Magdalen announcing the Resurrection to the Apostles, St Albans Psalter, English, 1120-1145.

I know that these centuries-old icons are not touching me because I’m particularly religious, so it isn’t so much the subject matter that moves me.  Nothing in my past is sparked by seeing these images.  I’ve tried to figure out what it is that I “like” about the images I’ve been viewing, and the first thing that came to me was the color.  The vividness of the colors – blues, ochre, reds–give me a palpable rush of pleasure.

Romanesque interlace, "inhabited" with figures, England, 1190-1200.

But, why does a color make me feel good?  I started to research how colors affect our moods, but it didn’t hold my interest for long.  All I could thing of was how an old neighbor of ours was convinced that our son’s bright red nursery would emotionally cripple him for life.  Articles about “color trends” have always struck me as kind of superfluous, and anything I could have written in that vein would have been pulp.

So, I contemplated the colors and the feelings some more.  The vivid colors created an immediacy to the image.  It was real, in-your-face intensity.  And I wondered, how did those vivid colors survive all these centuries?  What power did those brushstrokes have to leap across centuries to reach out and touch me?  My husband suggested it was lead paint and all kinds of other terrible stuff that can’t be used anymore.   (see note below)   Maybe.  Probably.  But I prefer to think of it as something more elegant.  I love reading history books, but I could read all day long and not experience the visceral feeling I do when I look at one medieval icon or illuminated page.  I’m not creating new historical insights or anything like that.  It’s just an emotion.  It’s just the feeling that we are connected throughout the centuries and across the globe by the humanity and passion of artists.
NOTE:  I did find some info on the make-up of paints used by medieval artists on wikipedia:


“The medieval artist’s palette was surprisingly broad. In addition to the substances listed below, unlikely-sounding substances such as urine and earwax were used to prepare pigments[13].”

Red:   Mercuric sulfide (HgS), often called cinnabar or vermilion, in its natural mineral form or synthesized; “red lead” or minium (Pb3O4); insect-based colours such as cochineal, kermes and lac; rust (iron oxide, Fe2O3) or iron oxide-rich earth compounds
Yellow:     Plant-based colours, such as Weld, turmeric or saffron; yellow earth colours (ochre); orpiment (arsenic sulfide, As2S3)
Green:    Plant-based compounds such as buckthorn berries; copper compounds such as verdigris and malachite
Blue:     Ultramarine (made from the rock lapis lazuli) or azurite; smalt; plant-based substances such as woad, indigo, and folium or turnsole
White:     Lead white (also called “flake white”, basic lead carbonate (PbCO3)); chalk
Black:    Carbon, from sources such as lampblack, charcoal, or burnt bones or ivory; sepia; iron and gall
Gold:     Gold, in leaf form (hammered extremely thin) or powdered and bound in gum arabic or egg (called “shell gold”)
Silver:     Silver, either silver leaf or powdered, as with gold; tin leaf

Source:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illuminated_manuscript

Mural Stories

Recently I picked up several rectangular shaped canvases – wider than they were tall.  The format feels like a mural, one that invites the viewer to “read” the finished piece from left to right.  Sure, it’s smaller than what we think of as a mural, it is fun for me to try to tell a story on these canvases.

Murals have been around for thousands of years.  Think cave paintings.  Our early ancestors tell us about how they lived in the paintings they left behind.

Chauvet Cave Paintings

Fresco of bull jumping in Knossos

Many murals throughout history were frescos.  Fresco comes from the latin affresco which means “fresh.”  In frescos, the paint is applied on plaster on walls or ceilings.  The frescos of the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods told biblical stories and mythic tales.  They were stories about the way people viewed their relationship with the world and its cosmic forces.

Giotto, Kiss of Judas from the Scenes from the Life of Christ fresco, Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padova.

The Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne, Annibale Carracc, 1597

In the 1930s, the Mexican muralism movement gave us stories of social issues by artists like Diego Rivera and Jorge Gonzalez Camarena.

Precencia de America Latina by Jorge Golzales Camarena

These artists drew on stories from their ancient past to reflect on social and political ideas.  In Diego Rivera’s mural of the Market in Tlatelolco, you can lose yourself in the ancient streets.

Diego Riveres’ Murales Rivera Market in Tlatelolco
Murals bring art to the public.  They are costly and outsized projects that generally require financing from a sponsor, like a local government or business as in Chemainus.  Throughout history, murals were financed by wealthy patrons of the arts.  Murals reflect a symbiotic relationship between artist, public, and our collective “story of the world.”   A mural brings exposure for an artist.  They bring exposure to the arts for the public.  Murals are a way of expressing the beauty and the heartache of world in which we live.
The west side of the Berlin Wall was poignant outcry against living in a world without freedom.
1986 view of the West side of the Berlin Wall
The Bardia Mural in Lybia by John Frederick Brill.
The Bardia Mural, created during World War II in Libya by artist John Frederick Brill shows images of war mixed in with beautiful images of the culture of his home.  Unfortunately, though the mural still exists, it has been defaced.  In 2009, Italian artists began renovating the mural.

Last year, Colquitt, Georgia was proclaimed Georgia’s First Mural City by its state legislature.  It will be the host of the 2010 Global Mural Conference.

Poster for the 2010 Global Mural Conference

The goal of the organization that sponsors the Global Mural Conference is to promote the wealth of artistic and creative talent available world-wide.  The Global Mural Conference was born in the Vancouver Island town of Chemainus.  Chemainus was a dying town, with closed factories and a sagging economy.  Then, in 1983, backed by the Ottawan government and local businesspeople, Chemainus commissioned 7 murals, plus 20 more over the next nine years.  The themes for the murals were mostly based on old photos from a book about the history of Chemainus.  Artists faced the challenge of painting directly on buildings, working around roof overhangs, windows, and door.  The tallest mural was 33 feet.  The longest was 120 feet.  The changed Chemainus into a cultural attraction.

Mural by Carl Marcano of Hong Hing's old store

One wonders sometimes how a person can remain committed to a project that is too big, too expansive, too unwieldy.  I believe the commitment comes from the deep need to tell our stories.

The Antique Mall

I used old paper dolls to make Little Girls' Sun

We’ve just recently moved from Nashville to a very small town outside Nashville.  Adjusting to small time life takes some time.  There’s only one non-fast food restaurant in town.  The UPS place is closed on Mondays, and the Fed Ex guy apparently only comes here when he feels like it.  Tractor Supply is the biggest business in town.

But, we do have an antique mall.  It’s not big and it’s not full to the rafters, but it’s ours.  My son and I go every couple of weeks.  I’ve found a bound folio with sheet music from the early 1900s.  I’ve found tiny glass medicine bottles, and a delicate white hankerchief.  I also found a never-been-cut-up book of paper dolls.  My childhood came back to me in a rush.  I remembered small blunt tipped sissors in my hand as I cut out dolls and all their pretty dresses.

We’ve had a hint of Spring this week, and the sunshine made me think of these cute dolls, so I decided to take them out for some sunshine.   I used art paper to create textural grass, sky and clouds.   I dyed a crystal sun orange and cushioned it on a pile of peachy tulle embroidered with tiny beads.

I hope the antique mall has some new treasures next time we go!

Exhibitions: Masterpieces of European Painting

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1828, "Birchington-on-the-Sea" from the Museo de Arte de Ponce

Luis A. Ferre had a successful iron works business in 1950.   But, while in Europe in 1950, Ferre conceived the idea of bringing a healing force to landscapes in his native Puerto Rico that were  “scarred” by the works of man.  To “soften the scar,” Ferre brought European art  to Puerto Rico.  Over the next several years, Ferre collected an impressive collection of art from all over Europe that became the Museo de Arte de Ponce.

A selection from  Ferre’s Museo de Arte de Ponce is on exhibit at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tennessee.  I’ve seen Renaissance-era paintings in books before, but never original paintings in the flesh, so to speak.  The power and beauty of these paintings overwhelmed me.

The first thing that hit me was how old the paintings were.  Many of the paintings were from the 1400’s through the mid-1800’s.   I could see the spider-web cracks in the centuries-old paint so it was clear what I was seeing was indeed old.  But, the subject matter, the color, the detail that defined each piece had the power of the immediate.  The colors – blues, reds, ochres – were as vivid as if they’d been painting just moments ago and the paint were still wet.   Many of the  pieces seemed to be lit from within.  With an almost photographic quality, I felt like if I’d dared reach out and touch the painting, I would have felt the rich fabric of draped robes, or the coldness of a golden chalice.

In the exhibit hall next to the Arte de Ponce exhibit was an equally astounding exhibit of ancient Greek artifacts that told the stories of mythical  Greek heroes.  To juxtapose these two exhibits is to create a stark contrast.  The rich, boisterous and fantastical Greek myths are illustrated with flat profiles in solid black or orange on terracotta.  There’s no expression on Odysseus’s face.  There’s no flirtatious aspect about Helen as she brings down a bloody war between Sparta and Athens.  These pieces — various kinds of vessels with traditional Greek decoration — speak so eloquently because of the history and the  stories behind them.

But, the art in the Ponce exhibit speaks to us because it is alive.  Painters of this era moved beyond flat 2-D images and brought forth  fully formed human figures capable of expressing complex emotions through the tilt of a head, the slope of a shoulder, or the drape of a robe.  Yet, the most amazing aspect to me was the vividness of color that has lasted for centuries.  The painters’ ability to light a figure from within brings the figures to life in a way that the Greeks might have mistaken for the work of gods and goddesses.

Dr. Chase’s Last and Complete Work

In a recent browse through the local antique mall, I discovered a weathered copy of a book called Dr. Chase’s Last Receipt Book and Household Physician,  published in 1906.  I snatched it up to use in my art.   After doing a little research, I found out that Dr. Chase’s Receipt Book was one of the first “how-to” books and was popular  before and during the Civil War.

If the worth of a book correlates to its full title, this book is one of the most valuable on earth.  The complete title is: 

Memorial Edition of Dr. Chase’s Third, last and Complete Receipt Book and Household Physician, or Practical Knowledge for the Peopled; from the Life-Long observations of the author, embracing the Choisest, Most Valuable and Entirely New Receipts in Every Department of Medicine, Mechanics, and Household Economy; including a Treatise on The Diseases of Women and Children; In Fact, The Book for the Million; with Remarks and explanations which adapt it to the Every-day Wants of the People, Arranged in Departments and most Copiously Indexed.

  As a kind of afterthought, below the author’s name is one more statement:  “Why Conceal That Which Relieves Distress?” 

It turns out the copy I bought was a salesman’s copy.  It has the beautiful cover, but includes only samples of  Dr. A.W. Chase’s copious knowledge.  In the back of my copy, there is a subscription page for a salesman to record orders on several fold-out lined pages.  Apparently, the owner of my book wasn’t much of a salesman because the order sheets were blank.  They looked like the old Red Chief tablets kids used to use in school. Though my copy has just samples, the full book contains advice on everything from medical treatments to bee-keeping, to  how to wash lace veils.

The advice about women’s conditions was interesting.   Dr. Chase warned women about their periods   “Allow me here to give a word of caution about taking cold at this period. It is very dangerous. I knew a young girl, who had not been instructed by her mother upon this subject, to be so afraid of being found with this show upon her apparel which she did not know the meaning of, that she went to a brook and washed herself and clothes — took cold, and immediately went insane.”

Of course, I was curious what kind of man could boast such vast knowledge.  Dr. Chase was born in New York in 1817.  In the introduction to an earlier edition of Dr. Chase’s book, he wrote  that he “carried on the Drug and Grocery business for a number of years, read Medicine, after being thirty-eight years of age, and graduated as a Physician.”     The success of his books put  Dr. Chase on “the high road to fortune” according to a memoria in my copy.  Alas, Dr. Chase lost most of his wealth because he was apparently generous in the service of “advancement of education and benevolent enterprises.”  The memoria goes on:

But the storms of life finally overtook him and swept with almost resistless fury around the now aged physician, and a few of the prejudices that characterize the human family found a resting place in the heart of this noble man; yet, when the last chapter shall have been entered in the book of life, the account will probably be balanced. 

There is a black and white drawing of Dr. A.W. Chase, M.D. inside my copy.  He is extremely wizened with a long white beard that tapers to a point just at the top of his vest.  It is an oddly intimate portrait, maybe because the lines of his face and beard are so detailed.   Much of Dr. Chase’s advice is outdated.  Think about the place where we now get “copious” information on endless subjects — the Internet.   It might be kind of comforting to hold in one’s hand all the information necessary to manage domestic life.

Spring

"Faerie" by Ruthsartsandletters on etsy

Although it’s still February, this past weekend gave us a glimpse of Spring.  Going out the door without a coat felt reckless and the white skin of my arms was blinding.  I looked through the jeweled-tones of the art I created this past fall and winter.  The colors that seemed rich and festive in the winter, seem shabby by the light of the Spring(ish) day.  It’s time to rethink the color pallet.

The first spring color that comes to mind is a color midway between yellow and orange.  It’s that hard-to-name peachy color.  Not the sherbert color that older women wear to church, but the kind of peach that boils beneath the surface and will transform by summer into a color so vivid it aches.  That’s the color of a ripening peach in the open market in the French Quarter of New Orleans.

Spring Collage on Microscope Slide