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

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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.

And Letters: Review of Dancing For Degas by Kathryn Wagner

Degas, Dance Class

As a little girl and ballet student, the iconic paintings of ballet dancers in unguarded moments backstage were as familiar to me as my posters of teen idol Bobby Sherman.   Of course, not many readers will remember Bobby Sherman, while Degas’ paintings of dancers endure.  To my young eyes, the dancers in the paintings were the epitome of grace and beauty and therefore had to be living exotic and romantic lives.  Kathryn Wagner, in her first novel, Dancing for Degas, satisfies every little ballerina’s curiosity by going beyond the canvas into the lives of Degas’ models.

Dancing for Degas is a fictionalized account of a young woman, Alexandrie, from a desperately poor farm family who goes to Paris to be a ballerina for the Paris Opera Ballet.  The ballet company is, however, an elegant front for a high-class brothel.  In Wagner’s story, wealthy patrons of the ballet – men of money and power – gain backstage access, including entrance to post-performance parties where alliances between the dancers and the patrons were forged.  If a ballerina remained a virgin, she could aspire to be made a mistress of a patron.  If she carelessly lost her virginity and failed to snag an exclusive arrangement, at age 25 the dancer was forced to become a prostitute.

Alexandrie is fascinated by Degas and his constant sketching at the ballet.  She catches the eye of Degas and becomes one of his primary models for his series of dancer paintings.  Alexandrie is archetype strong and  intelligent female trapped in a male-dominated world.  She finds Degas mercurial and mysterious.  He is one of the few men in the ballerina’s circle who appreciates her intelligence.  At heart, Dancing with Degas is less about the painter or the ballerinas and more of a girl-meets-boy love story.   It’s a fun read, but should only be a starting point for a closer look into the life of the Paris Opera Ballet and the paintings of Degas.  The real story is even more fascination.

Le Ballet de l’Opera national de Paris was established in 1661 by French King Louis XIV – who actually danced with the ballet from time to time.  In Degas’ day, the Ballet was an important part of the cultural life in Paris.  It is true that many of the dancers at the Paris Opera Ballet came from poor, working class families.  Degas himself wrote, “It is among the common people that you find grace.” [i]

The dancers began training with the Opera at the age of 6, unlike Alexandrie who came as a teenager.  These Opera “petit rats” trained under the stern hand of the Ballet Master.  The Paris Opera Ballet was where “some of the city’s poorest young girls struggled to become the faries, nymphs and queens of the stage.”  [ii]

Edgar Degas, Before the Ballet, 1890/1892, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Widener Collection 1942.9.19

But, was the ballet a front for a brothel?   It was true that wealthy male patrons – called abonnes — had unusual access to the dancers.  If you look closely at some of the paintings, you can see these men in the background.   The abonnes often became “protectors” of the dancers.  The wealthy abonnes “lurked in the foyers, flirted with the dancers in the wings and laid siege to their dressing” rooms.”[iii]

Was Degas an abonnes? Actually, Degas had to enlist the help of influential friends to gain backstage access to the ballerinas.  However, he did become an abonne later in his life.[iv] At one point in his fascination with the ballet, Degas focused his attention on the abonnes. He did some illustrations for a writer’s satirical book about “the often sordid affairs of young dancers, their mothers and the abonnés” but the book was never published.

Edgar Degas, Dancers Backstage, 1876/1883, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection 1970.17.25

Once he gained access to classrooms and behind stage, Degas did more than 1500 pieces of the Paris Opera Ballet dancers.  Over half were of dancers backstage or at rehearsal in unguarded poses and at rest.  He focused on the natural cycle of work and rest.  He admired the athleticism and controlled movement of the dancers and sought to depict the dancers’ potential movement, held in tension.[v]

In 1875, after the original Paris opera house burned, the Palais Garnier, became the new home of the ballet.  Here, Degas regularly sketched the dancers.  One ballerina later recalled that he “used to stand at the top or bottom of the many staircases . . . drawing the dancers as they rushed up and down.”[vi]

Sometimes Degas made “notes on his drawings, criticizing a dancer’s balance, or the placement of a leg. On one sketch he jotted down a teacher’s comment about a student’s awkwardness: ‘She looks like a dog pissing.'”  [vii]

But Degas made even more drawings in his studio.  He paid the young ballet students (called “petit rats“) and more experienced ballerinas to pose.  Once, an inspector from the police morals unit came to the studio and demanded to know “why so many little girls were coming and going.”  [viii]

In Dancing for Degas, the painter was moody and prone to anger.  But, the real Degas enjoyed spending time with the dancers, who shared their gossip with the painter as they posed. [ix] As in Wagner’s book, Degas’ brother, Achille did have an affair with a ballerina.  But, there is no evidence, though, that Degas had such an affair.  He did have women friends, including women artist like Mary Cassatt, but some considered him a misogynist.   As portrayed by Wagner, Degas never married because he believed a marriage would interfere with his work.

Degas’ sculpture “Little Dancer” created particular controversy.  His model was fourteen-year old ballet student named Marie van Goethem.  Marie and her three sisters were training to become ballerinas.  Marie rose fast in the ballet; she progressed from a petit rat to the corps de ballet by the time she was fifteen, just after Degas completed the sculpture.   Unfortunately for Marie, she was fired from the ballet a couple of years later for excessive absences.  Marie’s mother, a widow, was a laundress and is said to have prostituted her daughters.  A newspaper article in 1882 claimed that Marie was a regular at disreputable cafes.   Then, Marie faded from site, and we don’t know what eventually happened to her.[x]

The Paris Opera Ballet is still going strong – and quite reputable.  Ballerinas still train at the Opera’s ballet school beginning at the age of sixteen.  At their website, you can take a virtual tour of the Palais Garnier, where the Degas roamed the halls observing the dancers.  Paris Opera Ballet:  http://www.operadeparis.fr/cns11/live/onp/L_Opera/L_Opera_de_Paris/histoire_de_l_Opera.php?lang=en


[i] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/degas-dancers.html

[ii] ibid

[iii] http://www.nga.gov/feature/artnation/degas/index.shtm

[iv] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/degas-dancers.html?c=y&page=2#ixzz0kcTmMNqJ

[v] http://www.nga.gov/feature/artnation/degas/index.shtm)

[vi] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/degas-dancers.html?c=y&page=1#ixzz0kcTUWXzY

[vii] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/degas-dancers.html?c=y&page=1#ixzz0kcTUWX

[viii] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/degas-dancers.html?c=y&page=1#ixzz0kcTUWXzY

[ix] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/degas-dancers.html?c=y&page=1#ixzz0kcTUWXzY

[x] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/degas-dancers.html?c=y&page=3#ixzz0kcUOovOm

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!

Short Short Stories: The Wedding

Something I do to help myself learn to write where every word counts is by writing stories that are exactly 100 words long.  I thought it would be impossible at first, but it isn’t.  It just requires making every word pull its own weight.  Plus — it truly takes very little time to read.

The Wedding

  So, enjoy!

The Wedding

Short, short story by Becky Ruth Powell

She looked at the name on the wedding cake.  She couldn’t remember whether she was Lisa, or Beth, or Mary.  She was Lenora this time.  She looked at her new in-laws, who adored her.  Mother, aunt, sister, like three scoops of sherbet in pastel dresses, strands of pearls buried in folds of neck-fat. 

Lenora considered whether she’d rushed things by spiking his cup of wedding punch, but when his head plopped onto her shoulder she dismissed doubt.

Amid the chaos of death, she inherited his sizeable estate.  Her in-laws fussed so over her well-being, she grew fond of being Lenora.

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