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


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.



"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

A Voice in the Crowd

Geography: Acrylic paints with vintage paper and wax

Being a late-blooming and unschooled artist,  I’ve spent a lot of time experimenting with new techniques lately.  Browsing through Jerry’s Artorama catalogue spurs some experimentation.  Who can resist the rich colors and intriguing possibilities presented there?   The talents and  techniques of  all the fabulous Melange Team Etsy artists spur experimentation, too.  I want to try everything.

But, like all experiments, some of mine haven’t turned out so well.  For instance, I’ve experimented with encaustic techniques, without investing serious money for the necessary tools.  There is no way I can get a nice, smooth encaustic surface with a little heat gun and a soldering tool.

I experimented with representational drawing and painting and managed to work out a watercolor of a barn that I have to my father-in-law.  He loved it.  But, he’s my father-in-law.  I tried a second piece – a trite and hackneyed landscape scene in a truly freaky pink/green color scheme.  (I tried diffusing it with wax, but couldn’t get it smooth — see above).

I’ve experimented with a high-gloss, thick resin finish on a couple of collages on wood panels.  The look is stunning – it looks almost like a ceramic tile.  But, it was  difficult to get a flawless finish.  I sanded and added coats until my husband finally told me that he had given me “old” resin and that’s why the piece had flecks in them that I couldn’t sand out.  Thanks, dear!  There goes three pieces right there. 

For the past few years, learning new things has been my mission in life.  I’ve learned I’m capable of doing things at which I thought I stank.  Exposing your brain with new experiences keeps your brain in top working order; it really does keep you young.  At the same time, one struggles to find one’s voice.  Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.   The struggle is to listen for your own voice amidst the clamor of everything else.


In Character: Exploring Character in Ken Follett’s World Without End


Moon Wishes by ruthsartsandletters on Etsy.com

Last night I said farewell to old friends. I left them where they were and walked down the dirt road that led through town. I passed through the heavy gates that protected the city. I walked over the bridge, the centerpiece of my friends’ lives, and out of the Middle Ages, back into 2010 and the busy paved street that led to my house with indoor plumbing, central heat and air, and a great big comfy reading chair. I closed my book, placed it on the table beside me and sat silently for a few minutes, grieving. I had just finished Ken Follett’s historical fiction novel World Without End.

After nine hundred and twenty-seven pages, I had become attached to a cast of fascinating people. In the best novels, we are deliciously tricked into believing that when we close the cover, life between the pages goes on without us. How can characters so vivid just disappear into thin air when the book is closed? Therein likes the writer’s craft. Character Basics

Unlocking the character code can be a tool for critiquing literature. A character is born where speech, appearance, and action come together around a name. A characterization is the process by which the writer makes the character seem real to the reader. The protagonist, a hero or heroine, is the character with whom we become most deeply involved. The antagonist is the character that parallels or opposes the protagonist, providing the conflict in the story. A character that does not change through the text is a static character. A dynamic character does go through change as a result of the action in the plot. A flat character is one that has one or two simple qualities or traits and is not psychologically complex. Sometimes flat characters are called “stock characters.” These can be easily summarized, and are more a “type” than an individual.

Characters that are more complex and fully developed are round characters or dramatized characters. Round characters generally are consistent in action and reaction, and plausibly motivated. Writers may use direct presentation to tell the reader by exposition or analysis about the character. Writers also use indirect presentation, showing the character in action and letting the reader infer the character’s qualities. Traditionally, readers explore characters on a personal level. In other words, a reader asks, “What kind of person is this character? Is she a person I’d like to know?”

A reader might also try to figure out why the character behaves as she does, or compare the character’s action with what we would do in a similar situation. In order for a reader to become involved with a character on a personal level, we make a few assumptions about literary characters •• The character is motivated from within to act •• The character is responsible for their own actions •• The character is unique and responds in personal ways •• The character is can be judged by comparing thoughts with actions.

A personal approach to reading characters implies that the character is morally accountable for her actions in the same way a real person is judged accountable. As with contextual readings based on social customs, character readings based on social customs may reinforce the prevailing set of values and discount new, different, or novel beliefs and practices.

Characters as Signs

Another way to interpret characters is to see them as signs or devices that represent values in the text. In fiction, characters can be used to open up or explore aspects of human experience, or to illustrate a trait of human behavior. A symbol is something that stands not only for itself, but also for an abstract idea, belief, or quality. Conventional symbols are ones that are widely accepted and used by writers. Some symbolic characters are consistent throughout the text, but others gather new meaning throughout the text.

An archetype is a universal symbol or prototype that evokes response in a reader, sometimes unconsciously. An archetype symbolizes basic human experiences, regardless of time and place. Conventional archetypes include •• the “great mother” •• the “wise old man” •• the “trickster” •• the “scarlet woman” •• the “faceless man.” •• the “artist-scientist”

Example: The Symbolism of the “Artist-Scientist

One archetype is that of the “artist-scientist.” The artist-scientist is a builder, an inventor, a seeker or dreamer, and a thinker. They may be so caught up in their own thoughts, they often must be reminded to eat or sleep, or come in out of the rain. They are both highly knowledgeable and innocent. They represent the wonder and the danger of curiosity.

The artist-scientist is an agent of change. This archetype character might spend hours concocting elaborate plans to reach the tower of the castle to rescue the princess, while the hero simply walks in the front door and up the stairs, scoops up the damsel and rides off into the sunset. The artist-scientist has an idealized view of reality. As a failure, the artist-scientists may symbolize the futility of trying to control one’s own fate. If successful, the artist-scientists can symbolize the idea that you can’t stop a dreamer from trying to change the world. Frequently naïve, the artist-scientist can also symbolize a gap between knowledge and fact.

Application:   The Artist-Scientist in World Without End

In Follett’s historical novel World Without End, the characters were vivid and detailed. His research was thorough, and he effectively used indirect presentation to flesh out the characters, which behaved, thought, and spoke in keeping with the historical period. The character Murthin is an example of the artist-scientist archetype. He’s of noble birth, but forced by poverty to become a builder. Since little science and engineering was known in those days, Murthin had to excel as an engineer, an architect, and a physicist.

When faced with a problem, Murthin never failed to invent or create something that solves it. In particular, Murthin designed a bridge to replace one that failed. Murthin studied the problems with the old bridge, and came up with new technologies to solve them. Superstition and religion are at cross purposes with Murthin’s science and Murthin mirrors the medieval trend from church rule to secular rule.

 To the townspeople, Murthin’s methods are strange and untried, and Murthin is faced with constant efforts to thwart his plan. Murthin represents the science side of the science-religion debate. He is determined, logical, and tolerant of new ideas. He is so persistent, that the changes he wants to bring to the town seem inevitable, like the proverbial progress that is said to be unstoppable.

By refusing to work with mindless adherence to the past, Murthin represents the idea that knowledge isn’t finite, that all there is to know is not already known. For Murthin, knowledge as dynamic rather than static, and mere mortals are capable of moving knowledge forward. Murthin literally and figuratively builds, stone by stone, the foundation for the village’s inevitable crossing into an uncertain future.


Schema (psychology); http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schema_(psychology)

Glossary of Literary Terms, Mayer Literature


 PAL: Perspectives in American Literature – A Research and Reference Guide – An Ongoing Project, Paul P. Reuben http://web.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/append/AXG.HTML

Literary Archetypes http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Literary_archetypes

Schema Theory: An Introduction, Sharon Alayne Widmayer, George Mason University, http://www2.yk.psu.edu/~jlg18/506/SchemaTheory.pdf

A Glossary of Literary Criticism http://www.sil.org/~radneyr/humanities/litcrit/gloss.htm Anatomy of Literary Criticism, Frye, Northrop 1957.


Follett, Ken, World Without End

 New York, Penguin Group. Moon, Brian, Literary Terms,

The NCTE Chalkface Series, 1999 Segal, Robert Alan; Jung, C. G. (1998). On mythology, Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-01736-0  


Review of Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin


Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

In a sort of steroidal six-degrees-of-separation excercise, In Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann spins a giant tale out of several disparate small tales.  Sometimes the threads spin with a a leaden sense of doom, somtimes with a jolt of recognition and joy.   

Set in the mid-70’s days of Vietnam, racial tension, and sexual revolution, Let the Great World Spin begins with a discomfiting scene at the World Trade Center twin towers.  A tight-rope walker has inexplicably strung a wire between the twin towers and is performing a breathtaking balancing act, mid-air, in the exact spot that, years later, takes a punch in the gut from two airplanes.   

Next we meet a young Irish man trying to make sense of the life his brother, Corrigan, has chosen to lead – the life of a priest whose only church exists under the freeway in the projects where his congregation – a group of hookers that include a mother and daughter team – ply their trade.  

Next we meet Claire, a blue blood Park Avenue wife struggling with loosing her only son in Viet Nam.  Through Claire, we meet Gloria, another grieving mother, but from the Bronx, a million miles from Park Place in the seventies.  Gently unfolding fully developed characters, McCann gives us a judge, desperate for something, anything, meaningful in his life.  He gives us a self-centered new-aged artist and the woman who is more than ready to walk away from him, given good enough reason — which she has after a monstrous car crash.   

If any of these tales sounds comical, they are not.  They are wry, ironic, and sharp.  But not comic.    There is no “I knew it all along” moment for the reader.  McCann’s writing is delicate enough  to avoid reeking of conicidence yet strong enough – like the tightrope- that each scene carries its own weight.   In Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann suspends relational definitions.  People slide into common orbit through nothing more than grief.  With nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, lives change.  With nothing but shared awe at a speck prancing boldly in the sky, bonds forge.   While familial relationships  form the baseline bonds for most people, sometimes it is the encounter with a stranger that leads to the most important bonds. 

The end of most books telegraph their arrival by dwindling pages and a sense of denouement.  Even very great books can have unsatisfying conclusions.  The best books leave the reader missing the characters.  The ending of Let the Great World Spin took me by surprise.  Literally, I must admit I was fooled by the inclusion of a readers’ guide in my edition.  When I reached the last page of the last chapter, I expected to turn the page to a new chapter, but I didn’t.  It’s not that the book ends abruptly – not in the way that disappoints a  reader hungering for resolution.  The abruptness is due instead,  to the circular nature of the tale.  I was engaged to the last word.  Though I expected to read on, immediately I knew that the story ended right where it needed to end.   The only way to survive loss is to keep moving.  McCann’s story moves  in a rich, full and expanding circle.  Being a Nashvillian, I couldn’t help thinking, in the words of  bluegrass musician Alvin Pleasant Carter,  “Will the circle be unbroken, Lord, by and by, Lord, by and by.”