A Book by Any Other Name

When I was growing up, books were objects I borrowed from the library and delighted in reading. These days, having visited various "book arts" exhibits, I've realized that books have also become art. I'm not referring to illuminated manuscripts nor to the stories or poetry printed on pages. Rather, I'm talking about artists' interpretations of "book." The creative results might incorporate book pages, a scooped-out book, or a book-shaped sculpture. In a time of enormous freedom in art making, the possible permutations are endless.

My latest viewing of book arts, the 9th Annual Altered Book Exhibit at Marin MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) in Novato, California, is a perfect example of this provocative diversity. Take, for instance, "Tree in Tree," in which Robert H. Hersey pushes the concept of book by quartering a section of tree to create "pages" over which he spread a photograph of a tree. It's one of 150 original book art objects that artists donated for the museum's fundraiser which, along with a challenge grant, led to more than $50,000.

  "Tree in Tree," by Robert H. Hersey. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"Tree in Tree," by Robert H. Hersey. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

Then there's the following construction of a tree composed from Collected Works of A. Lord Tennyson by Nance Miller.

  "A. Lord Tennyson," by Nance Miller. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"A. Lord Tennyson," by Nance Miller. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

  Detail of "A. Lord Tennyson," by Nance Miller. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

Detail of "A. Lord Tennyson," by Nance Miller. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

Rayne Madison also used books (The Magic Garment and Webster's New World Dictionary) to create a particular shape, but of a woman instead of a tree, while Joanna Kidd carved a portrait into a phone book.

  "The Magic Garment," by Rayne Madison. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"The Magic Garment," by Rayne Madison. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

  "Contacts I," by Joanna Kidd. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"Contacts I," by Joanna Kidd. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

  Detail of "Contacts I," by Joanna Kidd. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.   

Detail of "Contacts I," by Joanna Kidd. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.
 

Some of the artists employ the book format to explore political, social, cultural, legal, and environmental concerns. John Clarke Ridpath's History of the World, vol. VIII, was the inspiration for Donna Wallace's "The History of the World Without Women." The 1887 publication is liberally illustrated with pictures of hundreds of men but only six women. It reminds me of the art history book that I was assigned as a university student--there were no women artists in it.

  "The History of the World Without Women," by Donna Wallace. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"The History of the World Without Women," by Donna Wallace. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

Susan Larson remembers the aftermath of devastating fires, such as the October 2017 conflagration in Sonoma County, California. She created a personal requiem by gathering ashes and remains from Coffey Park in Santa Rosa and combining them with To Build a Fire, which was written by Jack London (1902) at his Glen Ellen home before being lost to fire in August 1913.

  "Phoenix Rising from the Ashes," by Susan Larson. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"Phoenix Rising from the Ashes," by Susan Larson. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

Barry Chukerman makes a different statement with his piece "ENOUGH! (The Right to 'Bare' Arms)":  "Teenagers cannot buy cigarettes, alcohol, lottery tickets, or pornography, but are free to buy weapons because we have a constitutional right to 'bare' arms." He replaces "bear" arms with "bare" arms as a play on words.

  "ENOUGH! (The Right to 'Bare' Arms)," by Barry Chukerman. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"ENOUGH! (The Right to 'Bare' Arms)," by Barry Chukerman. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

Hallie Gardo focuses on coastal issues in "Once by the Pacific," a paper collage based on a poem by Robert Frost of almost a century ago that presages the environmental dangers and destruction we face today should certain interests hold sway over the Pacific coast.

  "Once by the Pacific," by Hallie Gordo. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"Once by the Pacific," by Hallie Gordo. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

  Detail of   "Once by the Pacific," by Hallie Gordo. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

Detail of "Once by the Pacific," by Hallie Gordo. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

Sandi Miot made her piece from disconnected inside and outside spines of discarded books to call attention to the disintegration of books in our culture, as evidenced by the disappearance of community bookstores and libraries.

  "Disintegration," by Sandi Miot. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"Disintegration," by Sandi Miot. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

Other works in the exhibit have a whimsical air about them, such as Heidi Joseph's "Bookish," a wearable hat created from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and "Eat Your Veggies," by Barbara Cellers and Phyllis Glassman, who were inspired by the recipes and line drawn illustrations in Silver Palate Cookbook.

  "Bookish," by Heidi Joseph. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"Bookish," by Heidi Joseph. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

  "Eat Your Veggies," by Barbara Cellers and Phyllis Glassman. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"Eat Your Veggies," by Barbara Cellers and Phyllis Glassman. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

  "Novella, Beauty Queen," by Patricia Dahl. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"Novella, Beauty Queen," by Patricia Dahl. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

  "Talkin'," by Dunja Kacic-Alesic. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"Talkin'," by Dunja Kacic-Alesic. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

  "Sherlock," by Kristen Sargent. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"Sherlock," by Kristen Sargent. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

 "Appreciating Birds," by Sylvia Kacic.

"Appreciating Birds," by Sylvia Kacic.

  "Out of Africa," by Carol Allen. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"Out of Africa," by Carol Allen. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

  "Metamorphosis," by Robert Urban. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"Metamorphosis," by Robert Urban. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

Because the exhibit is spread across the entrance hall and 3 other areas, I can't include everything, but I hope these images make you reconsider books from another perspective. Aside from polemics usually printed on paper, how can book art be a means of communicating particular messages and raising awareness of important topics that need to be discussed? Or a way to bring a smile to our face or simply please us with its beauty? Of course, this again raises the perennial question: What is art, and what is it for?

  "Rotations," by Kerith Lisi. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"Rotations," by Kerith Lisi. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

  "The Perfection of Wisdom," by Colleen Cavin. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

"The Perfection of Wisdom," by Colleen Cavin. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA.

Questions and Comments:
Do you work with books in your artistic practice? If so, how? And what, if anything, are you intending to communicate?
Of the images here, which hold(s) the greatest appeal for you and why? Is it the artistry or the message?

 

Deceptive Art

How easily my eyes can be fooled. In a first glance at some works of art, I might think they're made of fiber, yet it turns out that they're paintings. I see what looks like wood, but it's actually ceramic. I am tricked once again by another trompe-l'œil (French for "deceive the eye"). Historically, the term refers to an art technique that uses realistic imagery to achieve an optical illusion, one in which the depicted objects exist in three dimensions. For me, whether correctly or not, the term encompasses all manner of outwitting us into considering something other than what it truly is.

  "Escaping Criticism" (1874), by Pere Borrell del Caso. Collection Banco de España, Madrid. Source:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/

"Escaping Criticism" (1874), by Pere Borrell del Caso. Collection Banco de España, Madrid. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

  "Girl at a Window" (c.1665), by Gerard Dou. The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown MA.

"Girl at a Window" (c.1665), by Gerard Dou. The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown MA.

Last week, I visited the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno for the first time. It was an unexpected gem. My specific interest was in "Marking the Infinite," the exhibit of artwork by Aboriginal women in Australia. From the distance of the gallery entrance, I was immediately struck by what I thought was a huge work of fiber art--a giant net or spider's web. When I moved into the space and examined the wall piece more closely, I realized it was actually a painting.

  "Sun Mat" (2015), by Regina Pilawuk Wilson. Nevada Museum of Art, Reno.

"Sun Mat" (2015), by Regina Pilawuk Wilson. Nevada Museum of Art, Reno.

  Close-up of "Sun Mat" (2015), by Regina Pilawuk Wilson. Nevada Museum of Art, Reno.

Close-up of "Sun Mat" (2015), by Regina Pilawuk Wilson. Nevada Museum of Art, Reno.

Although my initial impression was disproved, I learned that I was not far off the mark, for the creator of this work, Regina Pilawuk Wilson, is considered a gifted fiber artist who began painting in 2002. The patterns on the canvas mimic the stitch and weave of the syaw, large cylindrical fishnets made from the pinbin (or bush vine). When mission life imposed other ways of living on Aboriginal communities, knowledge of how to make the nets vanished. So Pilawuk Wilson traveled to a distant outstation to learn the nearly extinct art and, in turn, has taught the stitch to younger generations in primary schools. Her paintings, done with synthetic polymer paint, are also a conscious effort to revitalize lost traditions.

Another painting by Pilawuk Wilson appeared, at first, to be a kind of quilt made of plaid fabrics, but again it was an interpretation of the syaw (fishnet).

  "Syaw" (Fishnet) (2015), by Regina Pilawuk Wilson. Nevada Museum of Art, Reno.

"Syaw" (Fishnet) (2015), by Regina Pilawuk Wilson. Nevada Museum of Art, Reno.

  Detail of   "Syaw" (Fishnet) (2015), by Regina Pilawuk Wilson. Nevada Museum of Art, Reno.

Detail of "Syaw" (Fishnet) (2015), by Regina Pilawuk Wilson. Nevada Museum of Art, Reno.

At the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Massachusetts, I enjoyed an exhibit called "Tricks of the Trade." Over and over, I was duped into believing the piece on display was made of one material when it was created with others. When I saw the next image, the first thing that registered in my mind was thick, rich fabric or leather fine enough to drape. Wrong again! It's made of clay, wood, and steel.

  "Folds XX" (2014), by Jeannine Marchand. Fuller Craft Museum, Brockton, MA.

"Folds XX" (2014), by Jeannine Marchand. Fuller Craft Museum, Brockton, MA.

Of course, the next item I was viewing had to be a stunning basket.

  "Stellar Basket Illusion" (1995), by Lincoln Seitzman.   Collection of the Center for Art in Wood, Philadelphia, PA. Fuller Craft Museum, Brockton MA.

"Stellar Basket Illusion" (1995), by Lincoln Seitzman. Collection of the Center for Art in Wood, Philadelphia, PA. Fuller Craft Museum, Brockton MA.

Then I realized it wasn't made of plant material after all. The title card informed me that the artist used maple wood, ink, and paint to create the illusion of a basket.

  Detail of "Stellar Basket Illusion" (1995), by Lincoln Seitzman. Collection of the Center for Art in Wood, Philadelphia, PA. Fuller Craft Museum, Brockton MA.

Detail of "Stellar Basket Illusion" (1995), by Lincoln Seitzman. Collection of the Center for Art in Wood, Philadelphia, PA. Fuller Craft Museum, Brockton MA.

  "Feather Boxes" (2017), by Miriam Carpenter. Moderne Gallery, Philadelphia, PA. Fuller Craft Museum, Brockton MA.

"Feather Boxes" (2017), by Miriam Carpenter. Moderne Gallery, Philadelphia, PA. Fuller Craft Museum, Brockton MA.

Floating ever so delicately, light as air, the feathers in the boxes are not real feathers, but intricately hand-carved by Miriam Carpenter out of white oak endgrain, and includes steam-bent wenge (Millettia laurentii) spines, pyrography (decorating wood with burn marks) and dye.

  Detail of "Feather Boxes" (2017), by Miriam Carpenter. Moderne Gallery, Philadelphia, PA. Fuller Craft Museum, Brockton MA.

Detail of "Feather Boxes" (2017), by Miriam Carpenter. Moderne Gallery, Philadelphia, PA. Fuller Craft Museum, Brockton MA.

Without looking at the description under the next photographs, try to determine what they're actually made of. Is it metal, stone, paper, cloth?

  "Painter's Tray" (2003), by Victor Spinski. Ceramic, whiteware, glazes, and lusters. Collection of Chris Rifkin. Fuller Craft Museum, Brockton MA.

"Painter's Tray" (2003), by Victor Spinski. Ceramic, whiteware, glazes, and lusters. Collection of Chris Rifkin. Fuller Craft Museum, Brockton MA.

  "Hour" (2018), by Tom Eckert. Wood and paint. Collection of the artist. Fuller Craft Museum, Brockton MA.

"Hour" (2018), by Tom Eckert. Wood and paint. Collection of the artist. Fuller Craft Museum, Brockton MA.

  "Untitled" (1963), by Marcos Grigorian. Dried earth on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

"Untitled" (1963), by Marcos Grigorian. Dried earth on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

  Detail of "Untitled" (1963), by Marcos Grigorian. Dried earth on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Detail of "Untitled" (1963), by Marcos Grigorian. Dried earth on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

  "Lunar Fragments" (2014), by Ogawa Machiko. Multi-fired unglazed porcelain with formed glass glaze. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

"Lunar Fragments" (2014), by Ogawa Machiko. Multi-fired unglazed porcelain with formed glass glaze. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

  "Genesis" (2009), by Miyashita Zenji. Stoneware with gradated colored clay ( saidei ). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

"Genesis" (2009), by Miyashita Zenji. Stoneware with gradated colored clay (saidei). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Looking at these and other objects of art made me pause and reflect on how our quick perceptions cannot always be relied on as accurate. The branch on the forest floor strikes fear in us because it has the shape of a snake. The sandals I saw in a museum in Seoul that I assumed were woven from reeds were actually constructed with tightly twined handmade paper. A painting I peered at in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, trying to figure it out, was composed of earth, rather than something made by human hands or a machine. And so on. Sometimes, though, as the joke goes, "a cigar is just a cigar" or a tree is just a tree.

  “Corporal Term” (2014), by Kun-Yong Lee. Stripped tree trunk with its roots embedded in a cube of dirt. Gallery Hyundai’s booth, Frieze New York. Photo (cropped) by George Etheredge for The New York Times. Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/03/arts/design/review-frieze-new-york.html

“Corporal Term” (2014), by Kun-Yong Lee. Stripped tree trunk with its roots embedded in a cube of dirt. Gallery Hyundai’s booth, Frieze New York. Photo (cropped) by George Etheredge for The New York Times. Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/03/arts/design/review-frieze-new-york.html

As artists we can readily deceive viewers into thinking they're seeing something other than what's there. As art viewers, we can delight in that deception, in the surprises we encounter when we stop to examine more closely rather than rush past.

Questions and Comments:
What artworks have surprised you when you realized they weren't three-dimensional after all or were made of something entirely different? Do you feel duped by the artist or are you tickled by the "trick"?
As an artist, do you use trompe-l'œil in your work? If so, how?

 

FAME/SUCCESS

Don't confuse fame with success.  ---Erma Bombeck                                                                   

  A famous bench in Amsterdam. Source: https://www.tripadvisor.com

A famous bench in Amsterdam. Source: https://www.tripadvisor.com

I'm probably not off the mark when I think we'd all like to be acclaimed for what we create, whether it's a poem, sculpture, theatrical role, dance performance, painting, weaving, clay vessel, novel, or building. But how many of us long to have that recognition turn into fame, accompanied by fortune? Some artists declare outright such aspirations, while others hold their expectations close to the chest.

Is the trajectory to fame simply a matter of getting one's MFA or other training, then moving on to gallery representation or a publishing contract, which leads to rave reviews and spectacular sales? The chances of that happening so swimmingly are pitifully low, even for great artists. History tells us that they weren't always considered great.

  "Self-Portrait" (1887), by Vincent Van Gogh. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

"Self-Portrait" (1887), by Vincent Van Gogh. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

A few weeks ago, I saw "Loving Vincent," an animated biographical drama film about the life of Vincent Willem van Gogh (1853-1890) that explores the suspicious circumstances of his death. Unique in how it weaves real actors into painted animation, the movie consists of 65,000 frames. Each frame is an oil painting on canvas, created by a team of 125 classically trained painters (selected out of 5,000 applicants) who used the same technique as van Gogh. It's a stunning artistic feat in its own right, for which it has deservedly garnered or been nominated for awards around the world.

  Artist creating scene for "Loving Vincent." Source: http://www.imdb.com/

Artist creating scene for "Loving Vincent." Source: http://www.imdb.com/

  Painted scene from "Loving Vincent." Source: http://www.imdb.com /

Painted scene from "Loving Vincent." Source: http://www.imdb.com/

What I witnessed in the film is what I already knew: van Gogh had problems--social, mental, and financial--but they never diminished his passion for painting. He went out daily, literally rain or shine, to set up his easel and work. A Dutch Post-Impressionist who moved to France in 1886, van Gogh created more than 2,000 artworks in a decade, including 800 plus oil paintings, most of which he produced in the last two years of his tortured life. He was considered a madman and a failure by many. Yet, he wrote in his diary: "Still there is a calm, pure harmony, and music inside of me."

  "Stilleben: Früchtekorb und Handschuhe "   (1889), by Vincent van Gogh. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Vincent_van_Gogh

"Stilleben: Früchtekorb und Handschuhe(1889), by Vincent van Gogh. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Vincent_van_Gogh

Van Gogh did not become famous (or infamous) until after his death, a supposed suicide. Of all the paintings he created, only one sold. The economics of van Gogh's art career was a huge strain on his brother Theo, who supported him. The artist's reputation did not begin to grow until the 20th century. By 2015, "L'Allée des Alyscamps" fetched the stratospheric amount of 66.3 million dollars at a Sotheby auction, far too late to benefit Theo's family.

 " L'Allée des Alyscamps" (1888), by Vincent van Gogh. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Alyscamps

"L'Allée des Alyscamps" (1888), by Vincent van Gogh. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Alyscamps

According to a Zen saying, "No seed ever sees the flower." In one way, this is true for van Gogh, but in another way, it isn't. He painted regardless of fame or fortune, neither of which he achieved during his lifetime. But he was still successful; that is, he accomplished what he set out to do, to express his impressions and continually improve his art. His success was based on his own terms, not external definitions. That's not to say there's something wrong with gaining fame, especially if it would have eased Vincent's poverty and the burden on Theo. However, fame is fickle.

  "The Night Cafe" (1888), by Vincent van Gogh. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

"The Night Cafe" (1888), by Vincent van Gogh. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

You can be famous but not necessarily create "good" art. You can be famous, but perhaps only among a certain set of people. You can see your own image or your artwork on the front cover of a magazine and, a year later, realize that someone else has taken the spotlight and few now remember who you are. You can be famous and, for fear of losing popularity and sales, find yourself no longer willing to take risks, to try something unexpected and chance making mistakes. You can be famous and have your reputation seriously questioned. In his 1568 edition of artists' biographies, Giorgio Vasari included several women artists because, against all odds, they had managed to become famous. However, this visibility also subjected them to moral scrutiny, with consequences for opportunities of patronage.

  Source: https://kid101.com/worst-new-years-resolutions/how-to-become-famous/

Source: https://kid101.com/worst-new-years-resolutions/how-to-become-famous/

I wondered about this, so I looked into the etymology of "fame" and "success." Though the words are sometimes used interchangeably, their origins indicate they're clearly different. "Fame" is derived from the Latin fāma, "talk, rumor, report, reputation," while "success" comes from the Latin succedere, sub for "next to" and cedere for "to go, move." Success is therefore something that happens as a consequence of what we do, with effort and perseverance as crucial factors. Based on these roots, success is the achievement of one's aim or goal, whereas fame is what's said, gossiped, or reported about a person.

  Mark Rothko (ca. 1949), photo by Consuelo Kanaga. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Mark Rothko (ca. 1949), photo by Consuelo Kanaga. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

According to his son Christopher, Russian-American artist Mark Rothko (1903-1970) had a complicated relationship to fame: "fame was a desired but highly suspect drug." He struggled between two poles--the desire to be extolled and the discomfort with becoming the object of praise. Christopher explains, "The same part of him that remained wary of his fame also helped him keep perspective on the magnitude of his own gifts." He relates the following story in his book, Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out:

My uncle [Dick, an accountant from Ohio who had no knowledge of art] once told me about a conversation he had with my father. He and my aunt were visiting my parents in New York, and the two men went to the diner downstairs...My father proceeded to tell..[Dick] that he considered himself extremely lucky, that there were a dozen painters of his generation whom he thought every bit as talented as him, but who had not received recognition or whose reputations were now fading. He felt that, in the end, it was mostly good fortune that he was one of the ones who had become celebrated.....The attitude expressed...in this story is...[that he was] far more engaged with his work than with his ego. It highlights the fundamental humility that helped him clear himself out of the way, so that we could have a more direct, more honest experience with his work. And yet, we must remember, this is also the artist whose fantasy was to become one of the "Three Ms"--Mozart, Matisse, and Mark. He dreamed large, and he dreamed ambitiously. There is no question that he aspired to greatness, for to aspire to anything less would necessarily have left him short.

  "No. 61, Rust and Blue" (1953), by Mark Rothko. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No._61_(Rust_and_Blue)

"No. 61, Rust and Blue" (1953), by Mark Rothko. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No._61_(Rust_and_Blue)

I appreciate this story because it points to the challenges and pitfalls of flirting with fame. But aspiring to greatness is something else. Having passion and commitment to one's art is something else. Sustaining oneself as an artist for the long haul is something else. It's about defining success for ourselves, rather than letting others define it for us. It's about not pandering to trends in the hope of gaining fame (often momentary), but exploring and discovering who we are as artists--knowing what we want to do with our art and why we want to do it. Ultimately, it seems more likely that we'll derive a deeper satisfaction when we trust in personal success rather than in fleeting public fame.

I'll close with some quotes to ponder from both famous and successful people:

You know you are on the road to success if you would do your job, and not be paid for it.                                         -- Oprah Winfrey

Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.  -- Albert Schweitzer

I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure--It is: Try to please everybody.     --Herbert Bayard Swope

It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.
                                                                     -- Herman Melville

Success comes to those who dedicate everything to their passion in life. To be successful, it is also very important to be humble and never let fame or money travel to your head.                                                                       --A. R. Rahman

We learned about honesty and integrity--that the truth matters...and success doesn't count unless you earn it fair and square.
                                                                       --Michelle Obama

Questions & Comments:
What's your relationship to the notion of fame?
What stories can you share about fame that you or others have experienced?
How do you describe success for yourself as an artist?

Perfect/Imperfect

When a blind person opens his eyes, he will see trees, rivers, or mountains; but if he is an artist, he will see lines, shapes, and colors.
                                                             --Carmen Herrera

  Copper scraps. Photo by Mauro Cateb. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Copper scraps. Photo by Mauro Cateb. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

A few weeks ago, on the recommendation of two artist friends, I paid a visit to M. Maselli & Sons Hardware Store in Petaluma (Northern California). I was not there to look for new products inside the store. I wanted to explore what was sitting in the seven acres stretched out behind it. When I was growing up, we called such places junkyards, and we didn't play in them. But, today, all over the world, they strike me as incredible playgrounds for anyone who can't help creating with all manner of jettisoned stuff.

  Scrap metal collecting site in Akaa, Finland. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Scrap metal collecting site in Akaa, Finland. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

To say the least, I was flabbergasted once I started walking around Maselli's. Initially, what I saw were shapes and forms that could result in interesting patterns on cloth through rust dyeing. When I began to look more closely, I discerned cogs and gas burners and every category of things made of metal and now rusting in the open air. It's a good thing that I had to be somewhere else at a certain time or I'd have spent the rest of the day just browsing and gazing, imagining what could be made with what was visible in every direction. I think it takes a certain kind of mind and attitude to see beauty and inspiration in this environment. To the right person, it doesn't look like junk; it broadcasts artistic possibilities.

  Poznań   Weinahtmarkt, Poland. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Poznań Weinahtmarkt, Poland. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

  Manure spreader gear. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Manure spreader gear. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

André Sardone is an Australian artist who tunes into and responds to such broadcasts. He takes "discarded pieces of machinery, tools and mechanical components that have worked tirelessly in very hostile environments until they are no longer of use to society." He sees "the beauty in their engineered forms," recognizes that each one "has a story to tell," and then transforms the scrap metal into a different kind of beauty.

  "Lava Pod," by André Sardone.    Source: https://www.artsyshark.com/2018/02/27/featured-artist-andre-sardone/

"Lava Pod," by André Sardone.
Source: https://www.artsyshark.com/2018/02/27/featured-artist-andre-sardone/

  "Seed Pod" (2017), by André Sardone.    Source: https://www.andresardone.com/the-pod-series

"Seed Pod" (2017), by André Sardone.
Source: https://www.andresardone.com/the-pod-series

  "Cruisin" #4," by André Sardone.    Source: https://www.artsyshark.com/2018/02/27/featured-artist-andre-sardone/

"Cruisin" #4," by André Sardone.
Source: https://www.artsyshark.com/2018/02/27/featured-artist-andre-sardone/

I don't remember where I came across the following quote, which may or may not be an Egyptian proverb: "A beautiful thing is never perfect." Looking at the vast collection of rusting metal at Maselli's made me reflect on the limited notions we too often have about what is beautiful and what is perfect.

What does it mean for a thing to be "perfect"? The Latin origin of the word signifies something as basic as "completed." Over time, it has taken on other interpretations. According to Webster's, definitions include "being entirely without fault or defect," "corresponding to an ideal standard or abstract concept," and "lacking in no essential detail." Of these three, I consider only the last one useful because the first two strike me as unrealistic and unattainable. As Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) has said: "Have no fear of perfection; you'll never reach it."

I used to make myself crazy if my stitches weren't perfect, if a line wasn't perfectly straight. In time, I was able to see how pointless that was, for even when using a sewing machine, I myself am not a machine. My stitching reveals me, a human being, not a robot, not advanced technology.

At an art reception some ten years ago, I remember admiring a work that I thought was technically perfect, the stitching enviable. A friend commented, "Yes, but so what? There's no soul in it." I realized that I was obsessed with an ideal that, from another perspective, wasn't worth pursuing. Then a different friend quoted one of her teachers: "Perfection is overrated." Okay, then I could go for excellence. But more important is that what I create shows my human hand and heart, rather than that it be entirely without flaws. As such, it could still be perfect because it wouldn't be lacking in any essential detail; it would be complete.

  Detail of "Energy & Stillness" For complete image: https://mirkaart.com/mostly-black-and-white

Detail of "Energy & Stillness" For complete image: https://mirkaart.com/mostly-black-and-white

Nowadays, when mark-making with thread, I purposely do not create the stitches exactly even and the lines always straight because I find random lengths and movement more intriguing. The upshot is that perhaps I don't have to see my creations as imperfect--though they are--rather, as a fiber artist friend has suggested, I can broaden the meaning of the word "perfect" to embrace something deeper and more accessible than an impossible ideal. Something can be perfect only if it also embodies imperfection.

  "Enso" by Bankei Yōtaku (1622-1693). Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

"Enso" by Bankei Yōtaku (1622-1693). Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

As renowned calligraphic artist and teacher Kazuaki Tanahashi says of the Zen circle, "The ensō contains the perfect and imperfect; that is why it is always complete." In Heart of the Brush: The Splendor of East Asian Calligraphy, he encourages students with the following words:

Your lines may not look perfect. Don't worry. Lines drawn by anyone, including a master, will never be perfect. "Perfect" means that the result is exactly what you intended...All you can do is strengthen your skills and keep your expectations open.

  Zeus (or Poseidon). Bronze,   ca. 460 BCE. Found in sea at Cape Artemision, northern Euboea, Greece. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Zeus (or Poseidon). Bronze, ca. 460 BCE. Found in sea at Cape Artemision, northern Euboea, Greece. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

In many ways, lusting after an ideal of perfection seems particularly Western, perhaps a throwback to the Greek obsession with the perfect body, which still haunts us today. I've come to appreciate the beauty in imperfection, the beauty in what's been used and reused, even in that which has been broken or discarded.

  Tea bowl, Korea, Joseon dynasty, 16th century. Ethnological Museum, Berlin. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Tea bowl, Korea, Joseon dynasty, 16th century. Ethnological Museum, Berlin. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

There's a lovely tradition in East Asia of restoring that which has been broken, unlike the habits of our throw-away society. In Japan, it is called kintsugi ("golden joinery") or kintsukuroi ("golden repair"). Instead of automatically replacing fragmented pottery, someone repairs it with lacquer or resin mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. The intention is not to disguise the cracks, but to illuminate the damage, to welcome and accept what is flawed, old, rough, and imperfect, and thus also to value its history. It's the opposite of equating beauty only with what's new, smooth, polished, shiny, and perfect. Similar is the aesthetic philosophy of wabi sabi, which acknowledges that there is nothing that lasts or is perfect. That holds for every thing and every person.

  Stoneware with gold lacquer repair; 17th century, Smithsonian Institution. Source: https://www.architecturaldigest.com/

Stoneware with gold lacquer repair; 17th century, Smithsonian Institution. Source: https://www.architecturaldigest.com/

Like "beautiful," isn't what's "perfect" a subjective experience? For example, I treasure rust: the gradation of colors it produces, its ability to act as a dye on fabric, its reflection of the forces of nature at work over time. But someone else might say that rust makes the metal no longer perfect, as it once was when first manufactured. It's all about what we're interested in seeing. When we focus only on the scratch, we are likely to completely miss the "diamond." As French Romantic artist Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) commented, "Artists who seek perfection in everything are those who cannot find it in anything."

Questions and Comments:
How do you understand the terms "perfect" and "imperfect"?
How do you apply them in your artistic practice?
Whose skillful and aesthetic transformation of found objects are you drawn to?

Is It Really New?

We tend to think of the 20th century as the time when Western artists dramatically broke with traditional painting and sculpture that had been revered for centuries. No longer content to turn three-dimensional reality into two-dimensional mimesis on canvas or to create static figures in marble, they sought new ways to express not only what they saw around them but also what they felt.

  "Hauptweg und Nebenwege" (1929), by Paul Klee (1879-1940). Museum Ludwig, Cologne.   Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

"Hauptweg und Nebenwege" (1929), by Paul Klee (1879-1940). Museum Ludwig, Cologne. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

Everything about the avant-garde artistic movements seemed radical and innovative, particularly for the people to whom it was first introduced. It was indeed revolutionary then, and initially condemned by some. However, this phenomenon was true primarily for European-based societies. Aspects of the so-called "new" art were actually ancient in diverse non-Western groups.

  Intricate Green Naga Textile, silk, Houaphan Province, Laos. Source:   http://www.hilltribeart.com

Intricate Green Naga Textile, silk, Houaphan Province, Laos. Source: http://www.hilltribeart.com

I think of the geometric shapes that continue to appear in the weavings of Laos, Timor (Indonesia), the Andes, and Native America as well as in ceramics and basketry.

  Navajo blanket (ca. 1870). De Young Museum, San Francisco.

Navajo blanket (ca. 1870). De Young Museum, San Francisco.

  Mimbres bowl (ca. 1010-1130). De Young Museum, San Francisco.

Mimbres bowl (ca. 1010-1130). De Young Museum, San Francisco.

I think of exaggerated faces and bodies that are still carved by African and New Guinea tribes. But in the 20th century, modern art looked, well, amazingly modern and even extreme to Westerners who were accustomed to what they considered acceptable--classical art, art of the academy.

  "Embodiments: Masterworks of African Figurative Sculpture," 2015 exhibit at the de Young Museum, San Francisco.

"Embodiments: Masterworks of African Figurative Sculpture," 2015 exhibit at the de Young Museum, San Francisco.

  Sculpture by Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920). Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

Sculpture by Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920). Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

In the 21st century, from time to time, I chance upon a variety of unexpected precursors that make me realize, once more, that "there is nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9). What is new is how an artist works with what is actually old, perhaps even prehistoric.

  Limestone slab from Abri Cellier depicting a woolly mammoth. Photo and drawing by R. Bourrillon. Source: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/

Limestone slab from Abri Cellier depicting a woolly mammoth. Photo and drawing by R. Bourrillon. Source: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/

It's unlikely that the artists who congregated in Paris during the late 1800s and very early 1900s were familiar with cave art. Almost 100 years ago, archaeologists were busy digging at Abri Blanchard and Abri Cellier, two sites in Dordogne, France. The paintings at Lascaux were not discovered until 1940. Then a team returned to the sites in Dordogne in 2012 and 2014 and found limestone blocks onto which people from 38,000 years ago had used a labor-intensive "pointillist" technique to create a woolly mammoth. They chiseled rows of dots into the stone.

  "Pointillist" painting at Chauvet cave. Source: http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/chauvet/red_dots_panel.php

"Pointillist" painting at Chauvet cave.
Source: http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/chauvet/red_dots_panel.php

On the walls of the Chauvet caves nearly 250 miles away, the image of an animal reveals a different method: by applying paint to the palm of the hand and then pressing circular smudges into the wall again and again, they made the figure emerge.

  "Le Bec du Hoc à Grandcamp" (1885), by Georges Seurat. Tate Gallery,   London.   Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

"Le Bec du Hoc à Grandcamp" (1885), by Georges Seurat. Tate Gallery, London.
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

As far as I know, French artist Georges Seurat (1859-1891) did not chisel into stone or make circular smudges with his palms. However, in the 1880s, along with another French painter, Paul Signac (1863-1935), he developed Pointillism, a brushwork method in which tiny, separate dots of color are applied in patterns to form an image. Rather than blend pigments on a palette, the artist relied on the eye and mind of the viewer to merge the distinct spots into a full range of tones. Clearly, there's a difference between what the French painters and the prehistoric people created. Still, it's striking how, so many millennia apart, we can employ a visual language that is not identical but certainly similar.

  "Le petit déjeuner "   (1886-87), by Paul Signac. The Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

"Le petit déjeuner(1886-87), by Paul Signac. The Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

Just as dots or points did not originate with Neo-Impressionists, "cubes" weren't invented by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and French artist Georges Braque (1882-1963). I realized this when I came across the art of Korean calligrapher and painter Jeong Hak-gyo (1832-1914), who depicted rocks as cubist shapes. The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco describes his style in the second image below:

Garden rocks in unusual shapes were favored among scholars as a subject for painting, but the work shown here is unlike traditional depictions of eroded rocks. Instead of rendering a realistic depiction, Jeong built up the entire rock form using a series of interconnected vertical and horizontal cubes juxtaposed with each other. He also sprinkled the contours with two-tailed dots. To balance the structural and cubic nature of the rock, he painted gentle orchid leaves and flowers behind the rock as well as thorn bushes in soft washes on the ground.

  "Rock" (1912), by Jung Hakgyo (Jeong Hak-gyo). Source: http://smartcollection.uchicago.edu/people/6387/jung-hakgyo--jeong-hakgyo

"Rock" (1912), by Jung Hakgyo
(Jeong Hak-gyo). Source: http://smartcollection.uchicago.edu/people/6387/jung-hakgyo--jeong-hakgyo

  "Rocks and Orchids ( Seoknan )," (1910), by Jeong Hak-gyo. Hanging scroll, ink on silk. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. Source: http://asianart.emuseum.com/view/objects/asitem/23143

"Rocks and Orchids (Seoknan)," (1910), by Jeong Hak-gyo. Hanging scroll, ink on silk. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. Source: http://asianart.emuseum.com/view/objects/asitem/23143

Then, a few weeks ago, I unexpectedly wandered into the exhibit "Repentant Monk: Illusion and Disillusion in the Art of Chen Hongshou," at the Berkeley Art Museum. Imagine my surprise when I saw the cubist technique again, only this time used much earlier. I couldn't help but wonder whether the Korean painter had studied Chinese landscape painting and was inspired by the work of Chen Hongshou (1599-1652). Before I was warned that no photos were allowed, I took this one, where cubist rocks are visible in the right-hand panel.

  "Old Tree, Banana, , Bamboo, and Rocks." Leaf A. Album of Birds, Flowers, and Landscapes , 1630-32, by Chen Hongshu. Berkeley Art Museum, Berkeley, CA.

"Old Tree, Banana, , Bamboo, and Rocks." Leaf A. Album of Birds, Flowers, and Landscapes , 1630-32, by Chen Hongshu. Berkeley Art Museum, Berkeley, CA.

It strikes me as more than interesting that what Western artists thought was completely innovative had actually appeared in some form before, including long, long before.

One last example, though there are dozens more. In the spring of 2014, I visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. "Quilts and Color: The Pilgrim/Roy Collection" was an eye-opening exhibit. Quilts, including from the 1800s, plainly appeared as the progenitors of 20th-century abstract art. Aware of the strong likeness between the two distinct forms of creative expression, the curators juxtaposed works by British artist Bridget Riley (1931-), American artist Sol LeWitt (1928-2007), Hungarian-French artist Victor Vasarely (1908-1997), and others. Considered a "grandfather" and leader of the op art movement, Vasarely created work that resembles the traditional pattern of "tumbling blocks." Could he have seen an Amish quilt in Europe? Who knows where his ideas for optical illusion came from?

  "Duo-2" (1967), by Victor Vasarely. Source: https://www.masterworksfineart.com/artists/victor-vasarely/painting/duo-2-1967/

"Duo-2" (1967), by Victor Vasarely. Source: https://www.masterworksfineart.com/artists/victor-vasarely/painting/duo-2-1967/

  Detail of Amish "Tumbling Blocks" quilt, Ohio or Indiana, 1920s. "Quilts and Color: The Pilgrim/Roy Collection," Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2014.

Detail of Amish "Tumbling Blocks" quilt, Ohio or Indiana, 1920s. "Quilts and Color: The Pilgrim/Roy Collection," Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2014.

  Amish "Tumbling Blocks" quilt, Ohio or Indiana, 1920s.   "Quilts and Color: The Pilgrim/Roy Collection," Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2014.

Amish "Tumbling Blocks" quilt, Ohio or Indiana, 1920s. "Quilts and Color: The Pilgrim/Roy Collection," Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2014.

So what do we make of such parallels? I'll let Russian painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) have the last word in his Reminiscences (1913):

Its [Art's] development does not consist of new discoveries which strike out the old truths and label them errors (as is apparent in science). Its development consists of sudden illuminations, like lightning, of explosions, which burst like a fireworks in the heavens, strewing a whole "bouquet" of different shining stars about itself. This illumination shows new perspectives in a blind light, new truths which are basically nothing more than the organic development, the organic growing of earlier wisdom which is not voided by the later....The trunk of the tree does not become superfluous because of a new branch: it makes the branch possible.

Questions and Comments:
What similarities have you noticed between the art of a particular period and the art of an earlier time in a different culture?
Which artists inspire/influence you in the creation of new work? How do you translate/transform what they did to make something original?

Wearable Art?

Although I like to dress well--that is, in my own style--I'm no fashionista. I've never subscribed to Vogue nor watched "Runway." Neither am I a seamstress. When I designed a couple of my jackets a few years ago, I had someone else sew the pieces together so the sleeves were set in the right place!

What I greatly admire is the traditional clothing and accessories that are indigenous to cultures around the world. When I lived and traveled in Latin America, I collected and also donned items that were woven and/or embroidered by hand. What I find fascinating about such clothes is that they function as more than a body covering: they generally tell a story about the people's history or beliefs, identify what region they're from, what social class or tribe they belong to, and showcase beauty and skill. They are the original fiber arts.

  Reconstruction of bridal robe ( hwarot ) from Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), embroidered silk.

Reconstruction of bridal robe (hwarot) from Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), embroidered silk.

Unlike what's produced by the fashion industry, these creations are timeless in their culture rather than "in" for one season. That's why I was eager to visit "Couture Korea" at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, running until February 4.

  Reconstruction of woman's ceremonial robe and man's official robe from Joseon Dynasty   (1392-1897).

Reconstruction of woman's ceremonial robe and man's official robe from Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897).

I've certainly seen hanbok (traditional clothing) during my trips to Korea. For many centuries, Koreans dressed in it in daily life, but today they reserve it for festive occasions, religious ceremonies, and national holidays. Otherwise, they go about in Western dress. Yet nowadays it's also common to see teens in rented hanbok strolling through palace and temple grounds and along city streets, posing for lots of photos or taking selfies. In a world of jeans and t-shirts, wearing hanbok has become a unique, fun, and perhaps nostalgic experience. Anyone who wears it gains free admission to the national palaces.

  Dressed in rented  hanbok , a young couple stroll through Insadong in Seoul.

Dressed in rented hanbok, a young couple stroll through Insadong in Seoul.

On the day I went to the exhibit, it was a special treat to view hanbok contextualized through the lens of couture as well as scholarly presentations by Minjee Kim, an independent dress historian in the S.F. Bay Area, and Lee Talbot, curator at the George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C.  Hyonjeong Kim Han, Asian Art Museum associate curator of Korean art, is the visionary behind a show that not only informs visitors about an integral aspect of Korean culture and art, but also demonstrates how tradition is serving as inspiration for the latest couture. Anyone who has seen the traveling exhibition of Korean fiber art that I co-curated last year will understand my attraction to this theme of translating tradition into contemporary art.

  Reconstruction of women's jackets  (jeogori ) from   Joseon Dynasty   (1392-1897).

Reconstruction of women's jackets (jeogori) from Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897).

While most people are familiar with kimono, few can say that about hanbok. Curator Han points out that its aesthetic is more about simplicity rather than "opulence or over display in the way it's presented." In addition, there's "important symbolism to the pieces and to each layer that's worn traditionally." I suspect that textile/fiber artists will soon find themselves using the interesting shapes as new forms for their designs, just as some have utilized the kimono outline. I appreciate the cheogori, jackets worn by women, which were modified from one era to the next according to then-current mores, as well as robes worn by men, particularly the translucent ones.

  Reconstruction of man's sleeveless robe from Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), ramie and silk.

Reconstruction of man's sleeveless robe from Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), ramie and silk.

  Reconstruction of King Yeongjo's outer robe ( dopo ), based on pre-1740 garment, silk.

Reconstruction of King Yeongjo's outer robe (dopo), based on pre-1740 garment, silk.

Moving through the gallery of traditional clothing (which also includes the cutest pieces for children of different ages), I learned some details that I hadn't come across in Korea, such as how courtesans set a new and daring fashion trend or how women wore many layers underneath the beautifully colorful outer wear. Marc Mayer, senior educator of contemporary art at the museum, skillfully employed technology to make such aspects more vivid.

  Children's vests, based on garments from Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), silk.

Children's vests, based on garments from Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), silk.

Then I moved into the gallery highlighting contemporary fashion inspired by traditional Korean fiber arts. Fashion pioneer Jin Teok drew on embroidered bojagi (wrapping cloth), such as these, which are more than 100 years old.

IMG_7300.jpg
  By designer Jin Teok

By designer Jin Teok

Like Teok, Karl Lagerfeld, the creative director of Chanel, has been inspired by bojagi, but also by Korea's traditional craft of mother-of-pearl.

   Bojagi  (wrapping cloths).

Bojagi (wrapping cloths).

  By Karl Lagerfeld.

By Karl Lagerfeld.

  Designs by Karl Lagerfeld. Korean mother-of-pearl boxes.

Designs by Karl Lagerfeld. Korean mother-of-pearl boxes.

The final gallery includes contemporary Korean designers Im Seonoc and Jung Misun, who are innovating traditional styles with technology, even working with materials generally used for other purposes.

In all the galleries, you can actually touch samples of the textiles--everything from silk and ramie to neoprene. On videos projected on the gallery walls, you can watch models walking the runways wearing the latest designs influenced by Korean traditions.

Even if you're not a clothes horse, seamstress, or fashion designer, there's lots to attract fiber artists and non-artists alike. Among the many avenues--cuisine, gardening, architecture, and music--for becoming aware of people's lives in other times and places, clothing offers another entry point.

Questions and Comments:
If you're drawn to fashion, traditional or contemporary, what is it that piques your interest?
Which culture's clothing really commands your attention?
As an artist, do you find yourself moved by traditional items to create new work?

Thread Heads: Fiber Art Abounds

      For those of us engaged in the fiber arts, it's a joy to hear about exhibits burgeoning around the world. In Northern California, for example, there is a healthy population of fiber artists, with shows opening regularly at art centers, galleries, museums, or other institutions. Some are entirely dedicated to fiber, such as the traveling Korean exhibition that I co-curated (see post 18 June 2017), "Renegade Fiber" at Marin MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) in Novato, CA (May 27 - July 2), and "Thread Heads" at Berkeley Art Center in Berkeley, CA (October 21 - November 26). Also, it's no longer unusual to include fiber entries in overall art shows. I feel fortunate to have my work juried into some of them. The more exposure fiber art gets, the less ghettoized it is.

So here are some images from two exhibits I just mentioned. They reflect how wide-ranging fiber art has become, incorporating natural and synthetic fibers as well as traditional and innovative methods, objects, and products, not to mention dimensionality. If you're not already familiar with the latest in fiber art, you'll see that imaginations are soaring and broadening the definition of art.

The first few images are from "Renegade Fiber."

  "Oops," by Tina Maier. Textiles, found objects, and wire. Marin MOCA.

"Oops," by Tina Maier. Textiles, found objects, and wire. Marin MOCA.

  "Big Smile," by Carolyn Burwell. Hand woven, hand dyed monofilament. Marin MOCA.

"Big Smile," by Carolyn Burwell. Hand woven, hand dyed monofilament. Marin MOCA.

  "Monochromania #16-1362TCX-16-1463TPG," by Sooo-Z Mastropietro. Cotton lycra fabric tubes on painted canvas, glue, thread. Marin MOCA.

"Monochromania #16-1362TCX-16-1463TPG," by Sooo-Z Mastropietro. Cotton lycra fabric tubes on painted canvas, glue, thread. Marin MOCA.

  "Echeveria," by Katie Gutierrez. Linen and encaustic. Marin MOCA.

"Echeveria," by Katie Gutierrez. Linen and encaustic. Marin MOCA.

  "Tube," by Leah Cabinum. Up-cycled inner tube rubber, wire, wood, paint, hardware, and tire parts. Marin MOCA.

"Tube," by Leah Cabinum. Up-cycled inner tube rubber, wire, wood, paint, hardware, and tire parts. Marin MOCA.

  "Esme with Love & Squalor," by Gina Telcocci. Reed, plaster, wood. Marin MOCA.

"Esme with Love & Squalor," by Gina Telcocci. Reed, plaster, wood. Marin MOCA.

  Detail of "Esme with Love & Squalor," by Gina Telcocci. Marin MOCA.

Detail of "Esme with Love & Squalor," by Gina Telcocci. Marin MOCA.

  "Yellow Polyhedron," by Marty Jonas. Thread. Marin MOCA.

"Yellow Polyhedron," by Marty Jonas. Thread. Marin MOCA.

Juried by fiber artists Marion Coleman, Karen Hampton, and Tali Weinberg, "Thread Heads" examines the current state of Bay Area fiber arts and poses the question: “What social and political circumstances are influencing the craft movement of the new millennium?” The works of a dozen artists grace the walls, floor, and ceiling of the gallery. However, without explanations, I have to admit that, in some instances, I wasn't able to discern what social and political influences are exerted on the artwork. Nevertheless, it's interesting to take a close look and try to figure that out.

  "Fly" (2017) + "Natural" (2015), by LaQuita Tummings. Textiles, beads, 3-D butterflies. Berkeley Art Center.

"Fly" (2017) + "Natural" (2015), by LaQuita Tummings. Textiles, beads, 3-D butterflies.
Berkeley Art Center.

  Detail of "Fly," by LaQuita Tummings. Berkeley Art Center.

Detail of "Fly," by LaQuita Tummings. Berkeley Art Center.

When standing close to Lia Cook's weavings, you notice only an abstract pattern. A face doesn't appear unless you move back far enough.

  Detail of "Positivity Su Data" (2014), by Lia Cook. Woven cotton and rayon.    Berkeley Art Center.

Detail of "Positivity Su Data" (2014), by Lia Cook. Woven cotton and rayon.
Berkeley Art Center.

  "Positivity Su Data" (2014), by Lia Cook. Woven cotton and rayon. Berkeley Art Center.

"Positivity Su Data" (2014), by Lia Cook. Woven cotton and rayon.
Berkeley Art Center.

If you can't get to the show, here are a few more images to consider. They represent an extensive variety of techniques and materials appearing in the realm of fiber art.

  In the center, "Phase" (2016), by Karrie Hovey, needle felted wool. On left wall, "Memoir 8 - La Ciudad" (2017), by Laura Raboff, wool and thread. Followed by "Supplemental 322x" (2017) and "Purl 322x" (2017), handwoven jacquard, hand embroidery, and, on a pedestal, "Microbiology Lab Series II" (2016), hand embroidery, all by Ruth Tabancay. Followed by "Somewhere in Me There Lives Giselle" (2016) and "Why Am I not Where You Are" (2016), quilts of silk and cotton, by Alice Beasley. On free-standing wall, "Openwork 2" (2017), made of steel wire by Lily Homer. Berkeley Art Center.

In the center, "Phase" (2016), by Karrie Hovey, needle felted wool. On left wall, "Memoir 8 - La Ciudad" (2017), by Laura Raboff, wool and thread. Followed by "Supplemental 322x" (2017) and "Purl 322x" (2017), handwoven jacquard, hand embroidery, and, on a pedestal, "Microbiology Lab Series II" (2016), hand embroidery, all by Ruth Tabancay. Followed by "Somewhere in Me There Lives Giselle" (2016) and "Why Am I not Where You Are" (2016), quilts of silk and cotton, by Alice Beasley. On free-standing wall, "Openwork 2" (2017), made of steel wire by Lily Homer. Berkeley Art Center.

  Detail of "Openwork 1" (2017), by Lily Homer. Steel wire. Berkeley Art Center.

Detail of "Openwork 1" (2017), by Lily Homer. Steel wire. Berkeley Art Center.

  Detail of "Why Am I Not Where You Are" (2016), by Alice Beasley. Berkeley Art Center.

Detail of "Why Am I Not Where You Are" (2016), by Alice Beasley. Berkeley Art Center.

  Detail of "Microbiology Lab Series III" (2016), by Ruth Tabancay. Berkeley Art Center.

Detail of "Microbiology Lab Series III" (2016), by Ruth Tabancay. Berkeley Art Center.

  "Little Memoir Dresses" (2016), by Laura Raboff. Cotton, thread. Berkeley Art Center.

"Little Memoir Dresses" (2016), by Laura Raboff. Cotton, thread. Berkeley Art Center.

  Detail of "Little Memoir Dreses" (2016), by Laura Raboff. Cotton, thread. Berkeley Art Center.

Detail of "Little Memoir Dreses" (2016), by Laura Raboff. Cotton, thread. Berkeley Art Center.

   "Us vs Them" (2017) + "Still Adjusting" (2017), by Alice Wiese. Embroidery thread on cotton fabric. Berkeley Art Center.


"Us vs Them" (2017) + "Still Adjusting" (2017), by Alice Wiese. Embroidery thread on cotton fabric. Berkeley Art Center.

  "This Old (Demolished) House" (2017), by Renee Owen. Mixed media. Berkeley Art Center.

"This Old (Demolished) House" (2017), by Renee Owen. Mixed media. Berkeley Art Center.

  Detail from "This Old (Demolished) House" (2017), by Renee Owen. Mixed media. Berkeley Art Center.

Detail from "This Old (Demolished) House" (2017), by Renee Owen. Mixed media. Berkeley Art Center.

  "In Twine" (2017), by Karrie Hovey. Manufactured felt. Berkeley Art Center.

"In Twine" (2017), by Karrie Hovey. Manufactured felt. Berkeley Art Center.

  Detail of "In Twine" (2017), by Karrie Hovey. Manufactured felt. Berkeley Art Center.

Detail of "In Twine" (2017), by Karrie Hovey. Manufactured felt. Berkeley Art Center.

Questions and Comments:
What do you notice about fiber art shows today compared to work you saw in the past?
If you're a fiber artist, what new materials or techniques do you employ that you didn't when you first started?
What is it about fiber art that appeals to you as a viewer and/or an artist?

Expressing Identity through Art

Over the centuries, many artists have used art as a vehicle for exploring questions about identity. Even though our ethnic heritage or sexuality informs who we are, identity is fluid rather than fixed. Our personal experiences as well as the sociopolitical realities of our time can revise how we see ourselves or how others perceive us. As both individuals and members of communities, we keep reconsidering our place in the world, wherever we live. This is especially true for those of us who are immigrants.

  Mills College Art Museum, Oakland, CA

Mills College Art Museum, Oakland, CA

When I was invited to a reception at Mills College for In-Between Places: Korean-American Artists in the Bay Area, I immediately knew I wanted to attend. As an immigrant to the U.S. when I was just a child, I am familiar with this search for cultural identity and trying to figure out where you belong. The eight artists who created new work for this show exist bi-culturally: their art is not considered American in their adopted country nor Korean in their home country. Using approaches to art making that are traditional and contemporary, Korean and Western, the artists express the reality and complexities of this ambiguous identity.

  "Turn Right, Turn Left" (2017), four-channel video installation by Minji Sohn.

"Turn Right, Turn Left" (2017), four-channel video installation by Minji Sohn.

Minji Sohn's video installation in an enclosed space invites visitors to fully experience her intense performative art by stepping on the small stage and following directions. Moving back and forth amid fast flashing lights feels discomfiting and disorienting. It's what Sohn has felt all her life as she flew between continents every few months, living in between countries and cultures. Turn Right Turn Left examines categorization itself through the constant shifting between two options: move or stand still, become part of the crowd or go it alone, dress in black or white. Seeking to find her way as an artist, Sohn has realized that complying to an authoritarian voice that instructs her which way to turn leads neither to resolution nor to an ultimate destination. Instead, she has created a manifesto for herself, though she doesn't suggest that it's advice for other artists:

Let us not be bound by ideas of how we must be. Let us not be told to be or do anything that feels wrong. Let us define for ourselves what the right timing and the right places are. Let us speak the unspeakable and question the obvious. Let us not be afraid of being hated, disgusted, shamed or pointed a finger at. Let us not be limited by meaningless, quantifiable labels of age, sex and race or use them as excuses; or let us use those labels to empower and inspire us. Let us be and make only what is true to who we are. Let us just be. Let us make no compromises.

  Painted canvas under plexiglass in "Chorus of Trees" (2017), by Younhee Paik .

Painted canvas under plexiglass in "Chorus of Trees" (2017), by Younhee Paik.

The individual works in this exhibit are not easy to capture fully through photography because of the spaces they occupy, the different components that comprise them, and the movement inherent in some. Minji Sohn's is one example, but so is Younhee Paik's Chorus of Trees, which consists of black and white charcoal drawings on rice paper as well as an acrylic painting on canvas under plexiglass on the floor. Taking in the artwork means walking on the plexiglass to see the colors and brushstrokes as well as looking up to see the drawings, which hang like scrolls.

  "Chorus of Trees" (2017), by Younhee Paik.

"Chorus of Trees" (2017), by Younhee Paik.

Paik offers viewers an opportunity to feel a kind of wonder, similar to when we gaze upward in an actual forest. If these monochromatic drawings were suspended outside, we might hear them rustle like real branches and leaves and hear birds flitting through them and calling out. According to Mills College Professor Mary-Ann Milford-Lutzker, one of Paik's first impressions of California was how different the light and shadows were from those in Korea. In choosing trees as her theme, she knows that our responses to Nature are universal, not specific to one culture.

  Charcoal drawing in "Chorus of Trees" (1917), by Younhee Paik.

Charcoal drawing in "Chorus of Trees" (1917), by Younhee Paik.

Being an immigrant often entails many sacrifices in order to establish a new life in another country. For Kay Kang, a huge part of that was missing the later years of her father's and grandmother's lives before they passed away. My Journey/Bahljhachwee and From East to West incorporates traditional socks or beosun to reflect longing for her family. To create them, she recycled Korean bed linens made of ramie (fiber derived from a flowering plant in the nettle family Urticaceae, native to eastern Asia). Her family had used the linens during the hot and humid Korean summers many decades earlier. The feet cast in plaster represent the steps she has taken during a journey of 46 years since she immigrated to the United States.

  "From East to West" (2017), by Kay Kang.

"From East to West" (2017), by Kay Kang.

  Detail of   "From East to West" (2017), by Kay Kang.

Detail of "From East to West" (2017), by Kay Kang.

  "My Journey/Bahljhachwee" (2017), by Kay Kang.

"My Journey/Bahljhachwee" (2017), by Kay Kang.

Kang also created beosun with sumi ink and acrylic on hanji (handmade Korean paper) and collaged them on canvas. She explains that these paintings describe "the life journey and evolution of women." Traditionally, Korean women wore white cotton socks not only to keep warm, but also to make their feet appear daintier. Especially in front of one's elders and men, bare feet were not considered feminine. Her beosun depict the transformation "from a protected woman to a bare-footed, independent, strong-minded woman in America." Kang admits that she might not have had the courage to express her feminist concepts in Korea, but she feels free to do so in the Bay Area.

 "Guests Missed" (2017), by Kay Kang.

"Guests Missed" (2017), by Kay Kang.

In Guests Missed, inspired by the guest book Kang received from her family in Korea, the beosun are inscribed with letters and records of visitors who attended her grandmother's memorial in 1974 and her father's a year later. At the time, her family decided not to upset her by informing her of these deaths. When she learned of her father's passing, she was not aware that her grandmother had died a year before. Her grief and sense of alienation were that much greater, for she'd had a deep relationship with her grandmother, who taught her calligraphy at the age of five.

  "Hills and Water" (2017), by Miran Lee.

"Hills and Water" (2017), by Miran Lee.

Miran Lee also uses fiber in her artwork. For Hills and Water, she worked with Korean silk and ramie which she had collected over a decade. From her mother, she inherited two rolls of 50-year-old ramie, wrapped in old Korean papers containing the name of the person who had woven the cloth. Lee spent two years meticulously hand sewing (unbelievably tiny stitches!) the fabric that had traveled from the east end of Korea, where she's from, to the west end of the United States, where she lives now. Her work reflects an old saying in Korea--"unfamiliar mountains and water"--that describes the feelings of foreignness and homesickness in an unfamiliar place.

  Detail of "Hills and Water" (2017), by Miran Lee.

Detail of "Hills and Water" (2017), by Miran Lee.

While the blues, greens, and purples are reminiscent of sky and water, the neutral colors reflect rocks and hills--the environment of the San Francisco Bay Area. In using Korean fabrics and sewing techniques from hanbok (traditional clothing) and bojagi (traditional wrapping cloths), Lee has successfully combined aspects of her native country and her adopted country.

  Detail of "Hills and Water" (2017), by Miran Lee.

Detail of "Hills and Water" (2017), by Miran Lee.

Nicholas Oh made the life-size figure Chinktsugi out of ceramic, wood, resin, and paint. Instead of avoiding the issue of discrimination, he challenges assumptions about Asian Americans, who are regarded as foreigners. According to Oh, the title of his work is a word play on kintsugi, a Japanese method for fixing broken pottery that uses lacquer mixed with gold or silver dust. It highlights cracks and repairs to signify events in the life of the object while simultaneously embracing its flaws. Oh finds similarities between his hyphenated identity and this technique and its underlying philosophy. For example, he says that some people consider his lack of extensive knowledge of Korean culture a flaw. Yet others see him generically as Asian and have no compunctions about hurling insults and slurs at him.

  "Chinktsugi" (2017), by Nicholas Oh.

"Chinktsugi" (2017), by Nicholas Oh.

In Chinktsugi, Oh includes motifs from Japanese and Chinese cultures as well, such as an auspicious blue dragon (symbol of strength and fortitude) and Chinese hexagrams and symbols of good fortune (sign of hopefulness). Oh adds that when he tries to make non-Asian cultural references and to comment on other issues through his art, he is often criticized for going outside of his "race."

  Detail of "Chinktsugi" (2017), by Nicholas Oh.

Detail of "Chinktsugi" (2017), by Nicholas Oh.

In Justice or Else, eight life-size, headless figures, made with ceramic, wood, paint, and patina, are dressed in military garb and hold billy clubs. The impression is one of negativity and menace. While serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, Oh faced racism and ignorant ("headless" or nonthinking) stereotyping. When he moved to the Bay Area to attend college, he observed a diverse mix of different cultures. He met other Asian Americans who were carrying both the heritage of their ancestors and the pride of being part of another place. Inspired by others in San Francisco, he was finally able to truly be himself. Oh's intention in his artwork is to focus on "the fact that social issues in America are real and present. That racism is real, injustice is real, segregation is real and [that] these issues impact all of us, not just one particular group of people."

  "Justice or Else" (2015-16), by Nicholas Oh.

"Justice or Else" (2015-16), by Nicholas Oh.

There are other works on view by Jung Rang Bae, Sohyung Choi, and Young June Lew.  As the exhibit runs until December 10, I hope you'll have an opportunity to visit Mills College in Oakland, CA and see all of them. Independent Curator Linda Inson Choy and Consulting Curator Hyonjoeng Kim Han (Associate Curator of Korean Art, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco) have done a masterful job of hanging the thoroughly contemporary show with a sense of traditional East Asian aesthetics, whose concepts transcend time and place.

For example, because space is as important as form or content, each artist is given ample height and width for her/his work to breathe freely. I especially welcome the overall spaciousness after feeling overwhelmed by shows in the 19th-century French Salon mode, where it seems every square inch of wall space is covered and I don't know where to look. Being able to walk around and under the pieces with ease affords viewers a variety of perspectives. In addition, In-Between Places embodies an elegant simplicity. It is evident in the repetition of shapes and stitches, in the contrast of charcoal and ink on white paper and canvas, in scroll-like drawings, along with other details.

While the artists have inhabited in-between places, the exhibit beautifully demonstrates how it's possible to integrate both cultures through diverse styles, techniques, mediums, and subject matter.

Questions and Comments:
Based on your own experience or the experiences of people you know, what are the challenges that immigrant artists confront?
How can we honor our cultural heritage while also embracing the one we live in?
How has art changed your mind about sociopolitical issues?
How do you address such issues in your own artwork?

Pressures and Tensions in Art

I learn a lot from the research and reflections of those who have had a great deal of formal training in the fine arts and art history. Reading and discussing enable me to better understand my own experiences in art. I respond intuitively to what I view and create, relying on my visual and kinesthetic senses. Something will feel "right" or jarring or unmoving. I'm not always able to articulate why, but at times I find that someone else's words will help me clarify those feelings. 

Lately, I've been delving into Constructivism, which is increasing my awareness of particular aspects of non-objective art in the 20th century. While this philosophy of art and architecture originated in Russia around 1913, during subsequent decades, it had a pervasive impact on modern art movements as well as on graphic and industrial design, architecture, theatre, film, dance, and fashion.

  "Bewegtes Tanzgeschmeide" (1960-70), by Jean (Hans) Arp. Arp Museum Bahnhof Rolandseck, Remagen, Germany. Source:   https://commons.wikimedia.org/

"Bewegtes Tanzgeschmeide" (1960-70), by Jean (Hans) Arp. Arp Museum Bahnhof Rolandseck, Remagen, Germany. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

In a book about Constructivism that's now 50 years old, I came across George Rickey's thoughts about tangents and pressures. Just as a deeply intense color can be stimulating, certain artistic devices can also create excitement. Sometimes it's an explicit instability of composition achieved through exquisite balancing with top-heaviness. As Rickey points out, the result appears to contradict the logic of "gravity, vertical-horizontal references, the horizon line, space and perspective."

  "Elementary Construction"(1916), by Jean (Hans) Arp (1886-1966). ©Collection Arp Museum Bahnhof Rolandseck, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Photo by Nic Tenwiggenhorn.  Source:  http://arpmuseum.org/en/museum/museum/the-arps.html

"Elementary Construction"(1916), by Jean (Hans) Arp (1886-1966). ©Collection Arp Museum Bahnhof Rolandseck, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Photo by Nic Tenwiggenhorn. Source: http://arpmuseum.org/en/museum/museum/the-arps.html

  "Composition" (1931), by Sophie Taeuber-Arp   (1889-1943).  Source:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/

"Composition" (1931), by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943). Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

The tension also comes from having tangential shapes barely touch or press against the frame or each other.

  "Parasols" (1938), by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943) . Source:  https://krollermuller.nl/en/sophie-tauber-arp-parasols

"Parasols" (1938), by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943). Source: https://krollermuller.nl/en/sophie-tauber-arp-parasols

A sense of compression or swelling can lead to a squeezing out of the space.

  "Untitled, No. 5" (1957), by Leon Polk Smith  (1906-1996). Source:  http://leonpolksmithfoundation.org/art-work/drawings-and-collages/

"Untitled, No. 5" (1957), by Leon Polk Smith (1906-1996). Source: http://leonpolksmithfoundation.org/art-work/drawings-and-collages/

  "Black Development" (1963-65), by Victor Pasmore (1908-1998).  Source:  https://www.google.com/

"Black Development" (1963-65), by Victor Pasmore (1908-1998). Source: https://www.google.com/

Rickey points out other devices, such as lines or contours that approach each other or the frame but never make actual contact; masses that just miss the frame or one another, leaving narrow gaps between them; an emphasis on acute angles; forms that appear to have been pulled and stretched; and the interruption of linear elements as lines cross them.

  "White and Green" (1959), by Carmen Herrera (1915- ). © Carmen Herrera.  Source:  http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/carmen-herrera-9101

"White and Green" (1959), by Carmen Herrera (1915- ). © Carmen Herrera. Source: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/carmen-herrera-9101

  "Here Comes Trouble," by Terry Jarrard-Dimond.  Source:  http://studio24-7.blogspot.com/2009/12/compositional-conversation-stage-15.html

"Here Comes Trouble," by Terry Jarrard-Dimond. Source: http://studio24-7.blogspot.com/2009/12/compositional-conversation-stage-15.html

These artistic techniques are possible in any medium. The works above encompass cloth, metal, paper, paint, and wood. If you're not drawn to non-objective art, the devices of pressure and tension are visible in representational art as well. I find them more obvious in geometric and geometric-like shapes.

Before I read Rickey, I wouldn't have used the word "exciting," but now I consider the off-kilter compositions provocative in an inviting way. The pressures and tensions make me want to look longer and more closely. They make me want to not only enjoy them, but also figure them out.

Question and Comments:
What elements do you find exciting in artwork?
Do you notice them more in non-objective or representational art? Examples?
How do you apply these ideas in your own work?

Never Too Old, Never Too Late

Last weekend, I went to a wedding reception at a local art gallery. It’s a venue where I’ve enjoyed viewing the work of other artists and been delighted to have mine exhibited as well. The latest show at Spindrift is “Celebrating Women Painters.” 

  "Formations," by Sandy Ostrau.   Source :   http://www.sandyostrau.com/landscape/

"Formations," by Sandy Ostrau.
Sourcehttp://www.sandyostrau.com/landscape/

As I walked around and talked with people, I noticed some books stacked on a side table, books about women artists. Maybe it was rude, but I couldn’t keep myself from perusing them and then sitting down with one in particular. I mention this because, after a long history of women artists being ignored, this seems to be a good year for their getting acknowledged--those who are alive and those who are gone. For example, earlier this year, the Palm Springs Art Museum hosted “Women of Abstract Expressionism”--12 American artists who worked in the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City during the late 1920s to the early 1960s. 

  "Epic" (1959), by Judith Godwin (diptych) National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.  Source :   https://www.psmuseum.org/calendar-2/287-women-of-abstract-expressionism

"Epic" (1959), by Judith Godwin (diptych) National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C. Sourcehttps://www.psmuseum.org/calendar-2/287-women-of-abstract-expressionism

Another major show--“Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction”--is on view at New York’s Museum of Modern Art until August 13. While I’ve not been able to visit either of these exhibits (and there are probably others I’m not aware of), I was struck by the fact that, at least in some cases, recognition of many women artists often does not come until later in life, if it comes at all.

  "Untitled" (1954), by María Freire (Uruguayan, 1917–2015). The Museum of Modern Art, New York.  Source :  www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/

"Untitled" (1954), by María Freire (Uruguayan, 1917–2015). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Source: www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/

At the reception, the book that captured my attention and made me sit down is about Carmen Herrera, a Cuban abstract, minimalist painter who has resided in New York since the mid-1950s. Before that, she also lived in Paris. In an interview last year, she is seen still creating new work at 101! In January, a retrospective, “Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight,” ended its run at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The book I examined is a catalogue by the same title. 

In 2016, Herrera quipped that when she was younger, no one knew she was a painter, but now they're starting to. "I've waited so long," she commented, and then referred to a saying: "If you persevere, you will triumph." She laughed heartily when she added, "Yes, I persevered almost a century, and I made it." 

  Carmen Herrera at her retrospective, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.  Source:  http://artishockrevista.com/2016/11/28/carmen-herrera-reconocida-gran-retrospectiva-whitney/

Carmen Herrera at her retrospective, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Source:
http://artishockrevista.com/2016/11/28/carmen-herrera-reconocida-gran-retrospectiva-whitney/

The media call such artists “late bloomers.” But is it the artists who bloomed late, or did the art world simply take its sweet time? Herrera didn’t sell her first painting until 2004, when she was 89. Then, suddenly, the Museum of Modern Art acquired a handful of her work. Five years later, at 94, she was profiled in The New York Times as “… the hot new thing in painting.” Now, Lisson Gallery in London represents her and has mounted several shows. 

  "Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight," Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.  Source:    http://artishockrevista.com/2016/11/28/carmen-herrera-reconocida-gran-retrospectiva-whitney/

"Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight," Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Source: http://artishockrevista.com/2016/11/28/carmen-herrera-reconocida-gran-retrospectiva-whitney/

Herrera is truly an inspiration for those who doggedly refuse to give up what they love to do, despite the lack of acclaim and sales. She has commented that being female was definitely a barrier. Gender issues were not a figment of her imagination. When she tried to enter her art for an exhibition at a gallery in New York, the curator (who also was female) told her she could not include the paintings because they were created by a woman. Yet, Herrera persisted.

  "White and Green" (1959), by Carmen Herrera. The Tate, London . Source:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/

"White and Green" (1959), by Carmen Herrera. The Tate, London. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

She remains ever enthusiastic about her geometric abstract art, in love with the beauty of the line, a result of her studies in architecture at the University of Havana. She recalls, “There, an extraordinary world opened up to me that never closed: the world of straight lines, which has interested me until this very day."

  "Untitled" (1974), by Carmen Herrera. Lisson Gallery, London.  Source:    http://www.lissongallery.com/exhibitions/carmen-herrera

"Untitled" (1974), by Carmen Herrera. Lisson Gallery, London. Source: http://www.lissongallery.com/exhibitions/carmen-herrera

In a 2012 Phaidon interview, she was asked: "What's next?" Her response: What a question to ask a 97 year old!...I want to make larger works, but then there is the problem of getting them in and out of this studio—the lift is tiny, the staircase crooked, and I never go out. So…I have choices to make—how to make them larger, or seem larger, or maybe make the world smaller?

  "Fireboard" (1918), by Grandma Moses . Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

"Fireboard" (1918), by Grandma Moses. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Herrera is not the only woman artist for whom recognition was a long time in coming. Whether you care for her folk art or not, Anna Mary Robertson Moses (“Grandma Moses”), born in 1860, is another example of “you’re never too old; it's never too late.” Though she loved to draw as a child, farm life demanded all of her time and energy. Once she raised five children in upstate New York, she took up painting rural scenes because arthritis made it too painful to hold a needle for embroidery. Moses displayed her paintings in a drug store window, where an engineer and collector noticed them in 1938 and bought the whole lot. The Museum of Modern Art included three of her paintings in an exhibition, “Contemporary Unknown American Painters,” when Moses was 79. Originally, she sold her work to people she knew, charging only $3 to $5 each. Fast forward to 2006, when one of her winter scenes commanded $1.2 million at Christie’s. She died in 1961, a year after LIFE magazine put her on its cover for her 100th birthday. Yet another woman who waited a century.

  Anna Mary Robertson Moses (1952). Photo by Roger Higgins.  Source:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Anna Mary Robertson Moses (1952). Photo by Roger Higgins. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

There are many other artists--in the musical, visual, and literary arts -- who “bloomed” after they turned 70. It’s heartening to know that "wilting" doesn’t have to be an option. The difference is in what we decide to do. When I lived on Maui, I met a woman who told the story of how she got into the work she was engaged in, at an age when others wouldn't have considered going back to graduate school. She'd already raised her children and wondered whether she might be too old by the time she got her advanced degree. One of her sons said, “Mom, so what? You’re going to be __ [pick a year] anyway. You might as well do what you want.”

A final comment on how age doesn't have to matter; in fact, it can provide a valuable edge. Writer Annie Proulx, in an interview with Luck Rock for The Guardian (5 June 2016), remarked that she doesn't regret how long it took for success to arrive:

You have time to have a life, to see change, to understand a bit how people work, how the world works, how society works, how things shift around, how slippery things can be, everything from politics to personal relationships. It's a great advantage to have that stuff under your belt when you start to write [or engage in other arts].

Questions & Comments:
What would you do next if you didn't think you're too old and it's too late?
What other artists"bloomed" during later stages in life? Why did they not let age get in the way?

Translating tradition Into contemporary art

It's amazing what can happen when you're interested and receptive while visiting another country and exploring its culture.

As some of you know, I have had wonderful experiences visiting South Korea. During my first trip, in Seoul I met artist and teacher Misik Kim, who is Regional Representative for SAQA (Studio Art Quilt Associates). Our conversations resulted in co-curating an exhibition that is now traveling in Northern California.

Korean Voices in Fiber: Translating Tradition into Contemporary Art is at the Sacramento Fine Arts Center in Carmichael until June 25. Last Saturday, our reception included Korean food and drink as well as a bojagi demonstration by Youngmin Lee, a Korean textile artist and teacher who lives in the Bay Area. People were fascinated as they watched her sew tiny stitches and hold up beautiful pieces of Korean textile art.

 Youngmin Lee demonstrating  bojagi  at Sacramento Fine Arts Center. Photo courtesy of Sangho Lee.

Youngmin Lee demonstrating bojagi at Sacramento Fine Arts Center. Photo courtesy of Sangho Lee.

The Korean Peninsula has been engaged in a wide variety of fiber arts--everything from weaving to basketry--since ancient times. People grew the plants from which they extracted the fibers and dyes with which to create fabric and paper. They fashioned them into clothing as well as many household, decorative, and ritual items. Museums in Seoul and other parts of the country display such historical objects.

 Shoes and baskets made from  hanji  (Korean handmade paper). Jong le Nara Paper Art Museum, Seoul.

Shoes and baskets made from hanji (Korean handmade paper). Jong le Nara Paper Art Museum, Seoul.

Because few people in America are acquainted with Korea's rich cultural and artistic history, this fiber art show highlights examples of some of its traditions through contemporary interpretations. There are 25 artists represented. Many are award winners whose work has been exhibited internationally. Some are also respected designers and professors in textile arts departments at Korean universities.

The materials they employed in creating their artwork range from such natural Korean fibers as silk (oksa, nobang, saekdong dan), ramie (mosi), hemp (sambe), cotton (myeon), and paper (hanji) to metallics and synthetics. The techniques embrace the traditional practices of patchwork piecing (jogakbo), hand stitching, weaving, and embroidery along with the modern practices of machine sewing, laser cutting, and digital textile printing. 

 Korean textiles at Gwangjang Market, Seoul.

Korean textiles at Gwangjang Market, Seoul.

With growing interest in DIY projects, recycling and repurposing, and sustainability, the once domestic craft of bojagi (Korean wrapping cloth) is a great illustration of economy and resourcefulness. Korean women have long made good use of every last scrap left over from constructing clothes, bedding, and other household items. It was also an outlet in which they could express their aesthetic sensibility. Bojagi has become a unique fiber art form that has expanded worldwide into fashion and design, architecture, and beyond. Like quilts that have moved off beds and are now hung on walls, bojagi are also recognized as more than practical home goods. They, too, are on the walls or suspended from ceilings at art shows and museums.

 "The Aesthetics of Line--Moon Jar" (2017), by Young Won Kwon. Photo courtesy of the artist.

"The Aesthetics of Line--Moon Jar" (2017), by Young Won Kwon. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The Korean fiber artists were tasked with finding inspiration in their cultural heritage. How they illuminate the theme of the show varies greatly. The traditional source for artist Young Won Kwon's entry above is the moon jar, a type of Korean porcelain made during the late 17th through 18th centuries of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). The shape as well as the milky color of the glaze remind one of a full moon.

 White porcelain moon jar. Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea, National Treasure of the Republic of Korea, no. 309. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

White porcelain moon jar. Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea, National Treasure of the Republic of Korea, no. 309. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Ye Ryung Cho chose a different kind of pottery, used since ancient times to store water, bean paste, rice, alcoholic beverages, etc. While these are jars that constantly get filled up and emptied, the "container" she created is for holding light.

 Traditional Korean storage jar. Photo provided by artist.

Traditional Korean storage jar. Photo provided by artist.

 "Beyond" (2017), by Ye Ryung Cho. Tyvek  ® , silk yarn, acrylic paint. Photo courtesy of artist.

"Beyond" (2017), by Ye Ryung Cho. Tyvek ®, silk yarn, acrylic paint.
Photo courtesy of artist.

Unbeknownst to one another, three artists chose the same traditional source, folk paintings (minhwa) of chaekkado or chaekgeori ("books and things"), which evoke a Confucian scholar's study. While in the West, books are placed side by side on horizontal shelves, in Korea, they were traditionally stacked vertically, along with paper, ink, brush, ink stone, archaic bronze vessels, porcelain, fruits, and flowering plants.

  Chaekkado  or Chaekgeori. Photo taken from a book, courtesy of Inyul Heo.

Chaekkado or Chaekgeori. Photo taken from a book, courtesy of Inyul Heo.

Each artist interpreted the chaekgeori in her own way through weaving, joomchi, or printing on silk.

  Chaekgeori  (2015), by Jungsik Kim.  Hanji  (handmade Korean paper);  joomchi  (ancient Korean paper-making technique), hand stitching.

Chaekgeori (2015), by Jungsik Kim. Hanji (handmade Korean paper); joomchi (ancient Korean paper-making technique), hand stitching.

  Chaekkado  (2017), by Inyul Heo. Wool, copper plate; tapestry weaving, cloissone enamel. Photo courtesy of artist.

Chaekkado (2017), by Inyul Heo. Wool, copper plate; tapestry weaving, cloissone enamel. Photo courtesy of artist.

  Chaekkado  (2017), by Hae Hong Chang.  Oksa  (Korean silk); lenticular printing,  ssam sol  stitching. Photo courtesy of artist.

Chaekkado (2017), by Hae Hong Chang. Oksa (Korean silk); lenticular printing, ssam sol stitching. Photo courtesy of artist.

Eun Hee Lee found her inspiration in gwi jumeoni, a traditional accessory. Such pouches--rounded for women, squared off for men--were needed because traditional Korean clothing (hanbok) had no pockets.

 Two kinds of  jumeoni  (men/women). Source: http://glimja.deviantart.com/art/Jumeoni-461692626

Two kinds of jumeoni (men/women). Source: http://glimja.deviantart.com/art/Jumeoni-461692626

  Gwi Jumeoni  (2017), by Eun Hee Lee. Hand-dyed cotton; free-motion machine quilting, raw edge appliqué. Photo courtesy of artist.

Gwi Jumeoni (2017), by Eun Hee Lee. Hand-dyed cotton; free-motion machine quilting, raw edge appliqué. Photo courtesy of artist.

Some of the artists worked with Korea's national colors (red, blue, white, black, yellow), which appear in flags, kites, Buddhist temples, etc. Yoon Kyung Kim is one of them.

 "Meditation" (2015), Yoon Kyung Kim. Hand-dyed Korean cotton; machine pieced, kantha stitching. Photo courtesy of artist.

"Meditation" (2015), Yoon Kyung Kim. Hand-dyed Korean cotton; machine pieced, kantha stitching. Photo courtesy of artist.

Others employed neutral colors. For example, Yun Suk Jung deconstructed two jeogori (jackets) and durumagi (long coat) more than 100 years old and created an entirely new bojagi, “Over Time—Remember.”

 Antique  jeogori , which Yun Suk Jung deconstructed toward creating  bojagi.

Antique jeogori, which Yun Suk Jung deconstructed toward creating bojagi.

 Yun Sunk Jung creating  bojagi  with tiny stitches.

Yun Sunk Jung creating bojagi with tiny stitches.

Young Soon Hur took her inspiration from the image of a two-crane badge. It's part of the system of insignia of rank for civil and military officials that was adopted in 1454 by the court of the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910) from China's Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Square badges of embroidered birds and animals on silk were worn on the front (hyung) and back (bae) of official costumes. Young Soon Hur digitally printed the image repeated in her piece.

 Badge ( Hyungbae ) of the Upper Civil Rank with Two Cranes. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles.  Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Badge (Hyungbae) of the Upper Civil Rank with Two Cranes. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles.  Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

 Detail of "Cell 2017-26" (2017), by Young Soon Hur. Felt, metal; digital textile printing, transfer printing. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Detail of "Cell 2017-26" (2017), by Young Soon Hur. Felt, metal; digital textile printing, transfer printing. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Of course, there's more. If you've ever responded to a call for entry theme, you know how many different results can emerge. To me, this demonstrates the endless imagination of artists, the limitless possibilities of what we can create when given even a simple idea. And this is true the world over. While following traditional parameters, each person comes up with an individual interpretation.

Since I've provided only a glimpse of Korean Voices in Fiber: Translating Tradition into Contemporary Art, I hope that, if you're within driving distance of any of the venues lined up till the end of 2017, you'll visit the exhibit to view the rest. 

In the Sacramento area: June 6-25, Sacramento Fine Arts Center (SFAC), Carmichael, http://www.sacfinearts.org/, simultaneous with "Focus on Fiber," 6th annual national show.

In the Santa Rosa area: July 28-September 3, Sebastopol Center for the Arts (SEBARTS), Sebastopol, http://sebarts.org/index.php/visual-arts/upcoming-exhibitions/, simultaneous with "Fiber Art VIII," International Biennial Fiber Arts Exhibition.

On the Sonoma-Mendocino coast: October 6-November 18, Gualala Arts Center (GAC), Gualala, Global Harmony Series, http://gualalaarts.org/.

I'm grateful for all the support I have received from co-curator Misik Kim, liaison Youngmin Lee, and translator Heejae Iacovino as well as Carol Wittich (SFAC), Catherine Devriese (SEBARTS), and David Susalla (GAC) for their enthusiastic willingness to host the traveling exhibit .

For one viewer's impression and more images of the exhibit, see Jenny Lyon's post: http://quiltskipper.com/2017/06/korean-voices-in-fiber-at-the-sacramento-fine-arts-center/

Questions and Comments
Have you transformed something traditional into a contemporary artwork? What inspired you? How did you translate tradition into modernity?

What cultural expressions in other countries have influenced you to create your own artwork?

Art Lessons for Unexpected Students

"What is art for?" is a short question that has long been pondered by many individuals. Answers are endless, depending on who's responding.

Some people are certain that art has, above all, a therapeutic value: Its purpose is to heal different levels or aspects of our being. Others say it's meant to shock and shake us out of complacency about important issues. Still others understand art's role as that of telling stories--the mythology and/or history of a people--or of imagining a different world. Some consider art as a way to make money. For others, it's a means through which to express emotions, spiritual visions, and ideas.

   Jacob's Ladder    (c. 1805), by William Blake. British Museum,   London.  Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Jacob's Ladder (c. 1805), by William Blake. British Museum, London. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

According to author and lecturer, Ellen Dissanayake, there are four key premises regarding the role art plays in human life. First, we have a basic need to embellish, decorate, and personalize. The arts also engage and activate our senses, which can have a powerful effect on our body, mind, and heart. The arts are involved in sacred and non-sacred rituals as well. And, last, we share cultural experiences through art, whether making it or receiving it in community.

  Tibetan monks creating a sand mandala.  Source: https://gandenmonkstourpgh.wordpress.com/tibetan-buddhist-ritual-arts-practices/

Tibetan monks creating a sand mandala. Source: https://gandenmonkstourpgh.wordpress.com/tibetan-buddhist-ritual-arts-practices/

  Navajo sand-painting ceremony.  Source: http://maninthemaze.blogspot.fr/2011/06/sacred-art-of-navajo-sandpainting.html

Navajo sand-painting ceremony. Source: http://maninthemaze.blogspot.fr/2011/06/sacred-art-of-navajo-sandpainting.html

For those who think of art only in lofty terms--that is, irrelevant to our everyday life--they might be surprised to learn how practical it can be in something as simple yet essential as seeing better. I have sometimes wondered whether we enter the field of art because we are already keenly aware of what's around us and in our mind or because we want to perceive even more acutely and art can help us do that. Since I never demarcated before and after in my own life, in terms of art involvement, I can't say which is true. I do know that I tend to be visually alert. Nevertheless, details can escape me when I become preoccupied and distracted. That's why I was intrigued to read about what law enforcement personnel and medical professionals are deriving from viewing art. It's teaching them to be more skillful in their work and not let important details escape them. Don't we all want our health care practitioners and police officers to be more effective on the job? At times, we might find that our lives are in the hands of their observational skills.

   The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp  (1632), by Rembrandt van Rijn. The Hague,   Mauritshuis.  Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632), by Rembrandt van Rijn. The Hague, Mauritshuis. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

In order to get medical students and young doctors to look up from their laptops and observe patients more closely, Linda Friedlaender, senior curator of education at the Yale Center for British Art, and Irwin Braverman, a dermatologist at Yale's medical school, teamed up in 2001 to initiate a program of developing the art of looking by actually looking at art. Since then, other medical education programs have availed themselves of this tool.

How it works: First, participants spend at least ten minutes with a painting at a museum; then they're asked to describe it in as much detail as possible; and, finally, they explain what the artwork represents. The result, eventually, is better diagnostic and descriptive skills. For example, at Brigham and Women's Hospital, first- and second-year medical students can meet weekly with curators at museums in Boston to study a variety of concepts, such as symmetry, texture, form, and motion. Viewing a limestone sculpture from various angles gets translated into observing breathing patterns in patients with respiratory illnesses in different positions. After inspecting El Jaleo by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), they assess balance, stance, and step in patients with gait issues. Those students who have attended the 9-week course have made 38 percent more observations when examining patients than those who have not taken it.

   El Jaleo  (1882), by John Singer Sargent. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.  Source:   https://commons.wikimedia.org/

El Jaleo (1882), by John Singer Sargent. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

One participant, Dhruv Khullar, has written that while the learning is "subtle and indirect," it still "ingrains insights deep within your consciousness. You feel and know even before you can think or speak." Now a resident physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, he has found the lessons in Yale's program popping up unexpectedly while doing patient rounds, noticing and describing more: "asymmetry on an old man's face...angry purple blisters...shadowy contours of pneumonia on an X-ray."

But improving diagnosis is not all that the program accomplishes, according to Khullar, who also blogs for the New York Times. It helps students deal with the ambiguity inherent in both art and medicine by broadening their thinking. Instead of rushing to what may prove to be a misdiagnosis, they consider a number of possibilities before arriving at an interpretation of what they see in a patient. In addition, studying art helps doctors to interpret emotional expressions better.  So, instead of relying mostly on technological testing, doctors become more capable of evaluating a person's condition using their own senses, which is how physicians were originally trained before the onset of sophisticated equipment.

   Portrait de Mme Morisot et de sa fille Mme Pontillon ou La lecture  (1869/70), by Berthe Morisot. National Gallery of Art,   Washington, D.C.  Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

Portrait de Mme Morisot et de sa fille Mme Pontillon ou La lecture (1869/70), by Berthe Morisot. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

The New York Police Department might seem another unlikely population for art lessons, yet his kind of learning has important ramifications for them as well as the medical students. Last year, Amy E. Herman, an art historian and attorney, escorted a group of officers through the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Building on the program started at Yale, she has also worked with FBI agents, CEOs, ER physicians, first responders, and others who need to improve their visual perception and communication. She told the cops they weren't there to learn about art per se. Rather, she was "using art as a new set of data" to help them better employ their skills on the job. For Herman, a work of art is not simply a cultural, aesthetic, or commercial object. It's "an invaluable repository of visual detail" that can help shed light on, for example, how to approach a murder scene. In other words, it's an aid to critical inquiry.

   The Horse Fair  (1852-55), by Rosa Bonheur. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

The Horse Fair (1852-55), by Rosa Bonheur. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Herman had the officers take a good look at Rosa Bonheur's The Horse Fair (1853-55), Picasso's At the Lapin Agile (1905), John Singleton Copley's Mrs. John Winthrop (1773), Goya's The Nude Maja (1797-1800), and Lucian Freud's Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995). As with the medical students, the police were asked questions about the artwork: What did they actually observe? What narrative did they discern? And so on. Because no two people see anything or anyone in the same way, their answers varied (and sometimes were humorous). It was an opportunity to realize what they'd overlooked. Often, what's right in front of us doesn't get remarked on. The cops listed the color of Mrs. Winthrop's eyes, her dress and the chair, the ribbons and lace, the jewelry, and the fruit. No one mentioned the mahogany table and her reflection in it. Yet noting obvious or minuscule details could mean the difference between life and death and between apprehending perpetrators or losing them. [For Herman's talk at Google:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4v_tn4nyjwE ]

   Mrs. John Winthrop  (1773), by John Singleton Copley. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/

Mrs. John Winthrop (1773), by John Singleton Copley. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/

I consider the special lessons described above as a way of introducing mindfulness to overcome what Herman calls "inattentional blindness." Others are teaching it to different populations and calling it "slow looking." Herman calls it "visual intelligence."[See earlier blog posts:  http://exploringtheheartofit.weebly.com/blog/slow-looking and http://exploringtheheartofit.weebly.com/blog/april-06th-2014/.]

It doesn't matter what we label the act of viewing; it matters what shifts inside of us. Henry Thoreau wrote, “The question is not what you look at, but what you see” (Journal, August 5, 1851).

Questions & Comments:
Has being an artist or lover of art changed the way you look/see/view? If so, how?
How have you helped others to see better through your own art?
What is your experience with children around this issue of looking/seeing? Do they see more/better?
Is "inattentional blindness" something that happens only to adults?

DON'T FORGET TO PLAY

Creativity is intelligence having fun.      
--Joey Reiman

When you're involved in creating something, do you find yourself thinking, "This is drudgery" or "What fun!"? How we label what we do can make a big difference in how we feel about it.

Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer conducted a study to determine what effect our words have on our experience of engaging in an activity. Using cartoons from a Gary Larsen calendar, all the participants performed a series of tasks of increasing difficulty. For half of the group, the task was defined as work and, for the other half, as play. Even though the tasks were exactly the same for both, the individuals in the "play" group enjoyed them. In contrast, those in the "work" group reported that their minds wandered as they made the effort to complete the assignment.

 Source: http://raebear.net/comics/work/

Source: http://raebear.net/comics/work/

Around the world, playing is a natural for kids. Even without toys, they can make up a game or build a structure with whatever materials are at hand. Play stimulates curiosity and imagination, and thus creativity as well. It's an important part of learning. As adults, we too often fall into the trap of thinking that play is for slackers, having fun is a waste of time, unproductive or purposeless. Instead, we're supposed to be serious! But what if that kind of thinking leads to dreading what we do, considering it simply a chore to get through? And what if play is what truly produces the results we want in our artwork, and in life in general?

 Source: www.pinterest.com

Source: www.pinterest.com

People rarely succeed unless they have fun in what they are doing. 
                                      --Dale Carnegie

 Image by Christoph Niemann,  Sunday Sketching . Source: http://www.itsnicethat.com/articles/christoph-niemann-reddit-ama

Image by Christoph Niemann, Sunday Sketching. Source: http://www.itsnicethat.com/articles/christoph-niemann-reddit-ama

 Image by Christoph Niemann. Source: http://pinterest.com

Image by Christoph Niemann. Source: http://pinterest.com

Recently, I watched some videos of German illustrator and graphic designer Christoph Niemann. His whimsical creations make me think that play/fun informs his work. I read that every Sunday, he would sit down with a blank piece of paper and a random, everyday object. He didn't know what he was going to draw, except that it would include whatever was right there. He turned pennies into scoops of ice cream, bananas into horse legs, a fork into a giraffe, a comb into a car grille, and highlighters into light sabers. You can see his humorous art on his website and in these videos:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9O9Eo5Laniw
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KWErvK30mp4

 Source: https://www.wired.com/2016/12/sunday-sketching-christoph-niemann-tells-brutal-truth-creative-process/

Source: https://www.wired.com/2016/12/sunday-sketching-christoph-niemann-tells-brutal-truth-creative-process/

Whatever inspiration is, it's born from a continuous "I don't know." 
--Wisława Szymborska

 http://www.naeyc.org/play

http://www.naeyc.org/play

Play is the answer to the question: how does anything new come about? --Jean Piaget

Brian Sutton-Smith (1924-2015), a New Zealand play theorist, spent all his working years attempting to discover the cultural significance of play in human life. In a 1967 study, he demonstrated that participants who were given a task to imagine various purposes for an object were likely to come up with many more ideas if they were permitted to play and tinker with the object first. Why? Other research indicates that while playing, we're in a psychological state in which it feels okay to wonder "what if?" and even to fail. That allows us to freely explore the unknown.

 "Die Hexe mit dem Kamme" (The Witch with the Comb), 1922, lithograph by Paul Klee. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Die Hexe mit dem Kamme" (The Witch with the Comb), 1922, lithograph by Paul Klee. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Swiss-German artist Paul Klee (1879-1940) greatly admired and was inspired by the art of children for their direct and naïve renderings. He tried to achieve that untutored simplicity by experimenting with artistic techniques, working with intense colors and line drawing in an unstudied way. He applied paint to everyday materials (burlap, cardboard panel, muslin) and in a nontraditional manner (spraying and stamping). It meant breaking academic rules of painting in oils on canvas.

 "Templegarten" (Temple Gardens), 1920, by Paul Klee. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

"Templegarten" (Temple Gardens), 1920, by Paul Klee. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

 "Insula Dulcamara" (1921-1938), by Paul Klee. Oil and colored paste on printed newspaper on burlap foundation. Zentrum Paul Klee (Museum), Bern, Switzerland.

"Insula Dulcamara" (1921-1938), by Paul Klee. Oil and colored paste on printed newspaper on burlap foundation. Zentrum Paul Klee (Museum), Bern, Switzerland.

As "Klee at Play," a recent exhibit at SF MOMA demonstrates, Klee was dedicated to exploring the creative and transformative possibilities of play. I was tickled to learn he made whimsical hand puppets for his son, Felix, fashioned from scraps of cloth, papier-mâché, and found objects. Between 1916 and 1925 he produced about 50 of them.

 Puppet by Paul Klee. Museum of Modern Art, SF.

Puppet by Paul Klee. Museum of Modern Art, SF.

Interestingly, as an instructor at Bauhaus, the German art school that combined crafts and the fine arts from 1919 to 1933, he was the only one who did not grade his students. Perhaps he sensed that grades would stifle their creativity rather than encourage freedom of expression and new insights.

 "Stachel, der Clown" (Prickle, the Clown), 1932, etching by Paul Klee. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco

"Stachel, der Clown" (Prickle, the Clown), 1932, etching by Paul Klee.
Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco

I experienced this firsthand a few weeks ago, when I decided to dye with rust for the first time. I'd been collecting rusted objects for probably a year, without a clue as to what I'd do with them. Since I knew nothing about the process, online I learned about using a 50/50 solution of white vinegar/water. I took some old cloth, layered it with rusted pieces or wrapped it around a rusted object, then sprayed the batch with the solution, covered it with plastic in an old baking pan, and let it sit for a day or so. When I opened the plastic, removed and rinsed the cloth, I was delighted--like a kid who'd just found some candy. I hadn't planned any of it and couldn't envision ahead of time how the scraps of cloth would look, yet I was pleased with the results. Even more, I felt happy because I had played. I went into this new activity without expectations, simply wanting to experiment. I felt no anxiety about performance. I had no particular goal. I wasn't concerned about the outcome being great or terrible. I was simply engaged in the process. It's clear that play is about openness rather than fear and judgment.

IMG_5109.JPG

I have similar experiences when I attend open sessions of a college group at my local art center. I get to play with materials and techniques that are not part of my repertoire. For me, it's like dropping into a kindergarten class. In the last one, we played with stamps and different inks. I found myself repeatedly stamping with a particular shape or pattern in layers. The results were abstract designs that I'd like to transfer to cloth. I had no idea this was going to happen. I just played in the sandbox du jour and had fun with what unexpectedly occurred. If you have a friend or several with whom you can form a play group, try it out. Let each person take a turn in sharing something with the others.

Professor Langer says, "If we stop judging ourselves, creating art becomes more possible." So, instead of putting off new activities because we're afraid of making a fool of ourselves, we can take up the paintbrush or flute. We can enjoy playing with them rather than worrying about what others think of our painting or music. Langer offers an example from the life of French artist Henri Matisse (1869-1954). A woman visiting his studio examined a painting he had just completed and declared: "The arm of this woman is much too long." He quickly retorted, "But, madame, you are mistaken. This is not a woman, this is a painting."

 "Yellow and Plaid Dresses" (1941), by Henri Matisse. Source: https://theartstack.com/artist/henri-matisse/yellow-and-plaid-dresses

"Yellow and Plaid Dresses" (1941), by Henri Matisse. Source: https://theartstack.com/artist/henri-matisse/yellow-and-plaid-dresses

As I continue to explore rust dyeing and collage, in turn, they're leading me to imagine a whole new way of displaying my textile art. In the middle of a frustrating period about something else in my life, this kind of playing affords me moments of lightness and joy. As American painter Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) suggests in his "10 rules for beginning creative projects": Attempt what is not certain. American visual artist Ann Hamilton adds: One doesn't arrive--in words or in art--by necessarily knowing where one is going.

This is not to say that we never plan what we're doing or take our art seriously. Not at all. But play is a crucial element in having our work evolve. It's about fully engaging in an activity or process, in the present moment rather than jumping into the future with evaluations and projections about what might or might not result.

Questions & Comments:
In The Creativity Challenge, KH Kim lists eight signs of a creative person: big-picture thinking; spontaneous; playful; resilient; autonomous; defiant; risk-taking; daydreaming. Do you check off "playful" to describe yourself?
How do you include play in your creativity?
What happens when you play in a new medium, with different tools or techniques, or in a field completely other than your own?

Artists and Nature

I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.                        --John Muir

Nature draws us out to explore, then gently sends us inward to reflect. Most often, we wind up feeling better as we gaze upon the moment-to-moment changes in the ocean, sky, mountain, desert, forest, meadow, or garden. We might be awed by the tiniest flower, bird, or insect, cheered by a profusion of color, intrigued by creatures looking for food or a mate, lulled by the incoming and outgoing tides, the rippling circles in a lake, or a babbling brook.

 Sunset at the Pacific Ocean

Sunset at the Pacific Ocean

As artists, how do we capture that experience? How do we translate it visually, acoustically, or tactilely? Do we try to render it as realistically as possible?

When I approached the following artwork at The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, initially I thought it was a photograph. But that didn't make sense, for I was in a gallery devoted to 19th-century European art. When I got close enough to take a careful look, I realized it's actually an oil painting. Before photography took over as king of realism, the fine details of representation rendered by Swiss artist Alexandre Calame (1810-1864) convey a palpable sense of the landscape.

 "Riverbed at Rosenlaui sur Meyringen" (c.1862), by Alexandre Calame. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

"Riverbed at Rosenlaui sur Meyringen" (c.1862), by Alexandre Calame. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

 "Riverbed at Rosenlaui sur Meyringen" (c.1862), by Alexandre Calame. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

"Riverbed at Rosenlaui sur Meyringen" (c.1862), by Alexandre Calame. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

If we don't choose the exactness of realism, do we abstract the scene so that, while it's not recognizable, it still conveys the essence of a landscape or seascape? Through different kinds of strokes, the Impressionists blurred the details and, instead, offered an "impression," as in this painting by French artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)

 "Low Tide, Yport" (1883), by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The Clark Institute, Williamstown, MA.

"Low Tide, Yport" (1883), by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The Clark Institute, Williamstown, MA.

 Detail of "Low Tide, Yport" (1883), by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The Clark Institute, Williamstown, MA.

Detail of "Low Tide, Yport" (1883), by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The Clark Institute, Williamstown, MA.

The tendency toward abstraction continued even more strongly in the 20th century. Working with scenes in upstate New York, American artist Arthur Garfield Dove (1880-1946) explored how to depict motion. As the title card at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston describes, "Blues, greens, and yellow resonate and harmonize in overlapping arcs, filling a canvas punctuated by tree trunks that seem to leap above the horizon." Without the title and description, would we know this?

 "Dancing Willows" (c.1944), by Arthur Garfield Dove. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

"Dancing Willows" (c.1944), by Arthur Garfield Dove. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

American painter Joan Brown (1938-1990) presents a thick, clotted mass of paint strokes at the center of her Abstract Expressionist painting "Brambles." There isn't even the slightest hint of representation, yet the feeling is one of an almost impenetrable mass, the way we encounter actual brambles.

 "Brambles" (1957), by Joan Brown. Oakland Museum of California.

"Brambles" (1957), by Joan Brown. Oakland Museum of California.

Around the world, nature is depicted with paint, wood, clay, fibers, metal, and more. The results might be stylized, traditionally indigenous, classical, avant-garde, particular to a place or era.

 "Autumn View," by Fiona Robertson. Machine and hand embroidery. Source: http://www.fionarobertsonartworks.co.uk/

"Autumn View," by Fiona Robertson. Machine and hand embroidery. Source: http://www.fionarobertsonartworks.co.uk/

There's even a Japanese stone art known as suiseki, influenced by Chinese scholar's rocks many centuries ago. Unlike sculpture, they are not deliberately carved to reflect landscapes, but are found intact in rivers, oceans, and karst. They are selected because of their expressiveness through shape, color, and texture. Considered objects of beauty to be gazed upon and enjoyed the way one might interact with a painting, suiseki remain unaltered in their natural form, but placed in a wooden base.

Like the simplicity of suiseki, some forms of East Asian nature painting leave out more than they include; the viewer imagines the rest. It's a different kind of abstraction.

 "Goose and Reeds, Willow and Moon." Pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, color and gold on paper, by Maruyama Ōkyo (Japanese, 1733–1795). Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

"Goose and Reeds, Willow and Moon." Pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, color and gold on paper, by Maruyama Ōkyo (Japanese, 1733–1795). Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

 "Celebrated Waterfall" (1820–1830), by Yanagawa Shigenobu (Japanese, 1787–1832). Polychrome woodblock print. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

"Celebrated Waterfall" (1820–1830), by Yanagawa Shigenobu (Japanese, 1787–1832). Polychrome woodblock print. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

 "Sun and Plum Branches," Shibata Zeshin (Japanese, 1807–1891). Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

"Sun and Plum Branches," Shibata Zeshin (Japanese, 1807–1891). Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

Not everyone tries to illustrate, whether realistically or abstractly, what they see in nature. For some artists, actually working directly with its raw materials is what results in a different kind of art. British sculptor, photographer, and environmentalist Andy Goldsworthy immediately comes to mind.

 "Wood Line" (2011), by Andy Goldsworthy .  Made from eucalyptus branches laid out in a sloping, sinuous curve through a eucalyptus grove in San Francisco's Presidio. Source: http://www.for-site.org/project/goldsworthy-in-the-presidio-wood-line/

"Wood Line" (2011), by Andy Goldsworthy. Made from eucalyptus branches laid out in a sloping, sinuous curve through a eucalyptus grove in San Francisco's Presidio.
Source: http://www.for-site.org/project/goldsworthy-in-the-presidio-wood-line/

Known for his land art, especially through the 2001 documentary film Rivers and Tides, Goldsworthy creates site-specific ephemeral sculptures with rocks, leaves, flowers, pine cones, snow, stone, twigs, thorns, and icicles. His intention is to understand nature by participating directly in it as intimately as possible. He explains:

Movement, change, light, growth and decay are the lifeblood of nature, the energies that I try to tap through my work. I need the shock of touch, the resistance of place, materials and weather, the earth as my source. Nature is in a state of change and that change is the key to understanding. I want my art to be sensitive and alert to changes in material, season and weather. Each work grows, stays, decays. Process and decay are implicit. Transience in my work reflects what I find in nature....I couldn’t possibly try to improve on Nature. I’m only trying to understand it by an involvement in some of its processes.

 "Touching North "  (1989), by Andy Goldworthy. Source: http://visualmelt.com/Andy-Goldsworthy

"Touching North" (1989), by Andy Goldworthy. Source: http://visualmelt.com/Andy-Goldsworthy

 "Green to Yellow Leaves" (1980), by Andy Goldsworthy. Source: http://visualmelt.com/Andy-Goldsworthy

"Green to Yellow Leaves" (1980), by Andy Goldsworthy. Source: http://visualmelt.com/Andy-Goldsworthy

 Ephemeral installation by Andy Goldworthy. Source: http://visualmelt.com/Andy-Goldsworthy

Ephemeral installation by Andy Goldworthy. Source: http://visualmelt.com/Andy-Goldsworthy

Recently, I came across other artists who utilize nature as their palette and canvas. For example, Ian Ross and Andrés Amador manipulate sand. Ross works with a rake to make giant designs on beaches in California. By "carving" into the smooth surface where the tide has receded, his own type of ephemeral and impermanent art form emerges. 

 Source: http://ianrossart.com/project/installation/

Source: http://ianrossart.com/project/installation/

 Source: http://ianrossart.com/project/installation/

Source: http://ianrossart.com/project/installation/

In the San Francisco area, Andrés Amador also employs a rake to create works of art that can be bigger than 100,000 sq. ft. After he spends hours developing contrast through wet and dry sand, the tide washes it all away. Only a photograph and a memory remain.

 Source: http://www.viralnova.com/beach-art/

Source: http://www.viralnova.com/beach-art/

 Source: http://www.viralnova.com/beach-art/

Source: http://www.viralnova.com/beach-art/

Given that everything is impermanent anyway, including ourselves--after all, we, too, are nature--does it matter whether our artistic creations live on or disappear?

Questions & Comments:
How does being in a natural environment affect your artistic sensibility?
Do you bring the experience back to your studio and let it inform you subconsciously? Do you try to recapture the scene?
Do you work outdoors? Paint au plein air? Work from sketches and/or photographs?
Do you prefer representational art of natural scenes or are you more inclined toward the abstract?
What artists come to mind for their relationship to Nature?

 Sunset at the Pacific Ocean.

Sunset at the Pacific Ocean.

How Do We Respond?

What artist has not reflected on her/his intention in creating art? We ask ourselves what the purpose of our work is and the effect we hope to achieve. Talk to a dozen artists and you'll get a dozen different answers to this question.

Some of us could be engaging in a formal exploration of themes, colors, techniques, materials, or styles. Others are recording observations of places, people, animals, and events. Perhaps we simply want to decorate space or capture beauty. Maybe we're expressing dreams, exorcising inner demons, evoking emotions, moving toward healing. We might be attempting to make visible what's spiritually invisible and to understand our place in the world. If we're deeply disturbed by issues of a social, political, and/or economic nature, the challenge of our art could be to exhort public action.

 Detail of "Red Disaster" (1963), by Andy Warhol. Silkscreen ink on synthetic polymer paint on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Derived from a photograph of the electric chairs in Sing Sing Penitentiary in Ossining, New York, where alleged Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed on 13 January 1953, at the height of the Cold War. 

Detail of "Red Disaster" (1963), by Andy Warhol. Silkscreen ink on synthetic polymer paint on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Derived from a photograph of the electric chairs in Sing Sing Penitentiary in Ossining, New York, where alleged Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed on 13 January 1953, at the height of the Cold War. 

If our desire is to confront the conditions of our times or even earlier periods, how do we go about doing that? What will affect viewers to open up and see things through another heart and mind? Does our artwork have to be blatantly political? Can we offer something that enables people to calm down in the midst of discord and turmoil? Do we create art full of rage in the hope that it will provoke people to act, or do we employ humor? What will be most effective in generating awareness and discussion of charged topics?

 "The Rich Soil Down There" (2002), by Kara Walker. Cut paper and adhesive on painted wall. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In 19th-century American homes, small and delicate silhouettes of loved ones and happy domestic scenes decorated the walls. Finding silhouettes, and racial stereotypes, reductions of human beings, Walker transforms this quaint tradition by turning an entire museum wall into a large tableau of racial and sexual violence in the pre-Civil War South.

"The Rich Soil Down There" (2002), by Kara Walker. Cut paper and adhesive on painted wall. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In 19th-century American homes, small and delicate silhouettes of loved ones and happy domestic scenes decorated the walls. Finding silhouettes, and racial stereotypes, reductions of human beings, Walker transforms this quaint tradition by turning an entire museum wall into a large tableau of racial and sexual violence in the pre-Civil War South.

 "No Vote, No Voice" (2017), by Alice Beasley. Textiles. This is Beasley's response to the day the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act and turned its back on voting as central to democracy.    

"No Vote, No Voice" (2017), by Alice Beasley. Textiles. This is Beasley's response to the day the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act and turned its back on voting as central to democracy. 

 

 "Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming Out)," 1840, by Joseph W. M. Turner. oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. A year after the reprinting of Thomas Clarkson's 1808  History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade,  this painting coincides with the first meeting in London of the World Anti-Slavery Convention to campaign for the end of slavery.

"Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming Out)," 1840, by Joseph W. M. Turner. oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. A year after the reprinting of Thomas Clarkson's 1808 History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade, this painting coincides with the first meeting in London of the World Anti-Slavery Convention to campaign for the end of slavery.

 Detail of Joseph Turner's  Slave Ship  (1840). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Detail of Joseph Turner's Slave Ship (1840). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

 "Untitled" (2011), from the series  Shakyō rōjin nikki  (Diary of a Photo-Mad Old Man), by Nobuyoshi Araki. Source: http://artradarjournal.com/2015/05/15/japan-after-fukushima-10-artists-making-art-about-the-disaster/. This is Araki's response to the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant disaster, the largest nuclear incident since that of Chernobyl in 1986. Using scissors, he created gashes in 238 photographic negatives, creating the appearance of black rain, gaping wounds or nails clawing for help.

"Untitled" (2011), from the series Shakyō rōjin nikki (Diary of a Photo-Mad Old Man), by Nobuyoshi Araki. Source: http://artradarjournal.com/2015/05/15/japan-after-fukushima-10-artists-making-art-about-the-disaster/. This is Araki's response to the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant disaster, the largest nuclear incident since that of Chernobyl in 1986. Using scissors, he created gashes in 238 photographic negatives, creating the appearance of black rain, gaping wounds or nails clawing for help.

  Rendering of "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors," by Ai Weiwei. Commissioned by the Public Art Fund, this Chinese artist and activist will build more than 100 fences across New York City in response to the international migration crisis. He was an immigrant in NY in the 1980s for 10 years. Source: various online news releases.

 Rendering of "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors," by Ai Weiwei. Commissioned by the Public Art Fund, this Chinese artist and activist will build more than 100 fences across New York City in response to the international migration crisis. He was an immigrant in NY in the 1980s for 10 years. Source: various online news releases.

Not every artist feels compelled to tackle vexing issues in a direct visual statement. At least for now, I am one of them. However, this doesn't necessarily mean remaining silent. I've chosen to be involved in hands-on action for immigrant members of my community. But those who do choose to give public voice to their concerns and resist the wrongs they perceive approach their art projects in individual ways. The images I've gathered reveal how certain artists have responded to the conditions they know about through personal experience or learn about through the news as well as friends, relatives, and colleagues. In some cases, the work of a single artist, such as Doris Salcedo, can vary greatly in form and material.

 "Untitled" (2008), by Doris Salcedo. wooden tables, wooden armoires, metal, concrete. Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA.

"Untitled" (2008), by Doris Salcedo. wooden tables, wooden armoires, metal, concrete. Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA.

The image above and the one below are of works from "The Materiality of Mourning" by Salcedo, a Colombian artist based in Bogotá. They contain items that convey both a familiar sense and an unsettled feeling. The furniture is piled together at disjunct angles; the chairs are partially crumpled or otherwise damaged. They seem to reference domesticity, but they embody tragedy, for they are no longer useful and the homes in which they might have resided are no longer inhabitable by those who have fled for their lives.

 "Thou-less" (2001-2002), by Doris Salcedo. carved, stainless steel chairs. Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA.

"Thou-less" (2001-2002), by Doris Salcedo. carved, stainless steel chairs. Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA.

In my early twenties, I was fortunate to live and work in Colombia during a halcyon period, when a reign of horrific violence did not grip this beautiful country. Born in 1958, Salcedo, did go through the turbulence and brutality, and members of her own family were among the many people who vanished. Her sculptures and installations address the pain, trauma, and loss that Colombians have suffered because of a ferocious civil war among government forces, drug cartels, leftist guerrillas, and right-wing paramilitaries. At the same time, she provides space for both individual and collective mourning. Her artwork deals with the fact that beyond grief lies the unbearable emptiness left by the disappearance of loved ones.

Click the link for a short video in which Salcedo guides viewers through this terrain and demonstrates why "art cannot explain things but it can expose them--that's why art here is so important and necessary": https://www.theguardian.com/cities/video/2016/jul/26/artist-doris-salcedo-bogota-forces-work-brutal-video

While the images above are of hard materials, Salcedo's work is also of a delicate nature. A Flor de Piel, below, is a large "shroud" made of real rose petals sutured together by hand. According to the artist, the piece is intended as "a flower offering to a victim of torture, in an attempt to perform the funerary ritual that was denied to her.”

  A Flor de Piel  (2013), by Doris Salcedo. Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA. Measuring approx. 11 ft. x 16.5 ft., this tapestry is comprised of thousands of treated and preserved, hand-stitched rose petals and intended as a shroud for a nurse who was kidnapped and tortured to death.

A Flor de Piel (2013), by Doris Salcedo. Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA. Measuring approx. 11 ft. x 16.5 ft., this tapestry is comprised of thousands of treated and preserved, hand-stitched rose petals and intended as a shroud for a nurse who was kidnapped and tortured to death.

 Detail of  A Flor de Piel  (2013), by Doris Salcedo.

Detail of A Flor de Piel (2013), by Doris Salcedo.

 Close-up of suturing rose petals for  A Flor de Piel , by Doris Salcedo. Source: http://www3.mcachicago.org/2015/salcedo/works/a_flor_de_piel/

Close-up of suturing rose petals for A Flor de Piel, by Doris Salcedo. Source: http://www3.mcachicago.org/2015/salcedo/works/a_flor_de_piel/

Equally delicate is Disremembered, a series of fragile-like, ghostly blouses that Salcedo developed after interviewing mothers who had lost their children to gun violence in Chicago. Through these sculptures, based on one of her own blouses, she gives form to the lost bodies deeply mourned by their families yet often ignored by society. Each one is made of raw silk threads interspersed in an irregular pattern with more than 12,000 tiny, blackened needles. The result is a kind of hair-shirt that both suggests and inflicts pain.

 "Disremembered" (2014, 2015-16), by Doris Salcedo. silk thread and nickel-plated steel. Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge MA.

"Disremembered" (2014, 2015-16), by Doris Salcedo. silk thread and nickel-plated steel.
Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge MA.

 Detail of "Disremembered," by Doris Salcedo. Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge MA.

Detail of "Disremembered," by Doris Salcedo. Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge MA.

What else do artists do when faced with something so atrocious as to be unimaginable? When World War II revealed inhumanity on a scale never before witnessed, they responded to the horrors in every medium.

German painter Max Beckmann (1884-1950) created a portrait of the era with traditional still-elements--skulls, extinguished candle, playing cards--to intimate the frailty, unpredictability, and impermanence of life. He created Still Life with Three Skulls in 1945, during the final months of the war, while living in Amsterdam, where he had fled in 1937. He described those years as "a truly grotesque time, full to the brim with work, Nazi persecution, bombs, and hunger."

 "Still Life with. Three Skulls" (1945), by Max Beckmann. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

"Still Life with. Three Skulls" (1945), by Max Beckmann. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Polish emigré Arthur Szyk (1894-1951), a book illustrator and one of the most prolific political artists of World War II, presented other images, such as the one below. Did it serve in any way to turn the tide against Hitler? Can we ever know what the impact was?

 "Madness" (1941), by Arthur Szyk. Magnes Collection, University of California, Berkeley.

"Madness" (1941), by Arthur Szyk. Magnes Collection, University of California, Berkeley.

Some people tried to capture what was happening through photographs, in the hope that someone would eventually know the reality, not the lies. An exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, "Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross," is only one of many such endeavors. Between 1940 and 1944, at great risk to himself and his family, Ross hid in places where he was forbidden to go and concealed a camera inside his coat in order to take pictures that depict the tragic poignancy of being singled out for genocide: driven by extreme hunger, people desperately dig for the rotten potatoes thrown away by Nazi soldiers; taken from their parents, children are literally carted off to a death camp; forced into deportation, people leave behind their dishes and food pails. He hid some 6,000 negatives in iron jars in an iron-rimmed box, which he buried in the ground. Miraculously, he survived and was able to unearth the documentation, much damaged by groundwater, once the war ended.

 Children being deported to Chelmno and Nerem death camp (1942), photo by Henryk Ross. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Art Gallery of Ontario.

Children being deported to Chelmno and Nerem death camp (1942), photo by Henryk Ross. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Art Gallery of Ontario.

 Food pails and dishes left behind by deported ghetto residents (1944), photo by Henryk Ross. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Art Gallery of Ontario.

Food pails and dishes left behind by deported ghetto residents (1944), photo by Henryk Ross. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Art Gallery of Ontario.

There are so many other works of art that I could include--famous and not famous--about violence committed against women, children, and other beings, against the oceans and forests, against people of one religion, ethnic group, race, nationality, or another--but the list is endless and a blog isn't supposed to be. Just know that artists everywhere are resisting and protesting in the name of immigration rights, housing, healthcare, free speech, equal opportunity, religious freedom, indigenous rights, environmental protection, LGBTQ rights, and much more.

But what happens when art is used for opposite reasons? In the play Leni, at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley, California, the main character, Leni Riefenstahl, says: It's just a film. Can a single piece of art really be so dangerous?  It's an important question. In Riefenstahl's case, the answer was "yes." Though lauded for artistry, her films "Triumph of the Will" (1935) and "Olympia" (1938) were funded by the Nazi government, which used them as powerful propaganda tools: to glorify Aryan beliefs about racial "purity" and the superiority of the "Germanic master race" to take over the world. Yes, art can be dangerous when used against others. Which leads me back to the question at the beginning of this post: What is the purpose of our work and the effect we hope to achieve? Added to that, what is an artist's responsibility in polarizing times, such as our own?

I'll end with some words from poet Mary Oliver's latest book, Upstream: Selected Essays:  "...the power of every idea is intensified, if not actually created, by its expression in substance....[T]hose who are the world's working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward."

Questions & Comments
How do artists play a galvanizing role in shaping popular opinion on the defining issues of our times?
Is an artist responsible for how his/her artwork is used?
What work of art changed your mind and heart about a troubling political/social condition?
How do you use your artistic voice to express your stance on issues of concern?

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1,800 Pieces

A few days ago, when I stopped by our local health clinic, I was stunned to see a flyer about an upcoming talk: "Collecting, Accumulating, Chronic Disorganization, and Hoarding." After the many dozens of responses to an earlier post on this topic (3 Feb), of course, I had to read further. I'd never heard of such a presentation in a medical venue. I'd never heard of such a presentation, period.

According to the notice, the guest speaker will address the fact that an estimated 4-6% of the general population experiences some level of disordered behavior called hoarding. Is this psych speak? Does that number apply to people who accumulate objects with which to create art? And does it include individuals like Rene di Rosa (1919-2010), who collected 1,800 pieces of eclectic artwork by 700 to 800 artists and displayed them in three galleries (including his former residence), across a sculpture meadow, and around a serene 35-acre lake, all set in a vineyard of 217 acres ?

 35-acre lake at di Rosa

35-acre