What Is Art For?

Is there an inherent value in or purpose to art? Ask a dozen persons and you’ll probably get a dozen answers. Yet, behind all of them, I sense a need to express something creatively, be it feelings or emotions, thoughts, opinions, or beliefs. And it doesn’t matter what the vehicle is—film, play, sonata, painting, dance, photograph, novel, poem, etc. In The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art, Russian-born American painter Mark Rothko (1903-1970) refers to “producing art as a fulfillment of the biological necessity for self-expression.” He contends that, like poets and philosophers, artists convey in concrete form “their notions of reality…they deal with the verities of time and space, life and death, and the heights of exaltation as well as the depths of despair.”

Mark Rothko (1959), photo by James Scott. Source: en.wikipedia.org/

Mark Rothko (1959), photo by James Scott. Source: en.wikipedia.org/

Some people see art as a series of successive innovations, each movement building on or surpassing the preceding one as new techniques, perspectives, and materials are applied. Yet we are still drawn to those much earlier works for what they capture, what they teach us about the past, and how they move us. Others contend that the role of art is to support us in becoming better human beings, individually and collectively. How does it do that? How do artists go about it? What kind of art deeply informs and inspires us, changes our minds and hearts, influences us to act? Does it boil down to the fact that Content Matters, the title of an exhibit at Marin MOCA? The juror of that show, San Francisco gallerist Jack Fisher, states, “Art can help us understand and make sense of the world around us.”

Detail from “The Bee and Jupiter” (2018), by Rachel Kalman. Oil on canvas, 28″ x 32″. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA. Source: marinmoca.org/.

Detail from “The Bee and Jupiter” (2018), by Rachel Kalman. Oil on canvas, 28″ x 32″. Marin MOCA, Novato, CA. Source: marinmoca.org/.

A recent first-time visit to Transmission Gallery in Oakland, California, prompted these questions. As a friend and I walked through two different solo exhibits, we were struck by the disparate approaches taken by the artists to present particular unpleasant realities that are part of history and of current times. If you’re put off by the images, political stance, or subject matter, before clicking off, pause for a moment to consider why. If you can, stay with me until the end of the post.

By Mac Mechem. Oil on canvas., 31” x 35”. Source: macmechem.com/.

By Mac Mechem. Oil on canvas., 31” x 35”. Source: macmechem.com/.

Artist Mac Mechem identifies as a social realist. The Russian Connection, his show at Transmission Gallery, reflects his stand on the caprices and phenomena of the present U.S. administration, climate concerns, and social crisis. He says, “I believe that art can be a tool for promoting cultural awareness and expediting social change.” In “Planting the Flag,” Mechem alludes to the ongoing carnage of pachyderms: last year alone, more than 20,000 elephants were slaughtered “to feed China’s insatiable hunger for carved ivory.” “Drive By” references gang shooting in the Fresno area of California, where the boys have “shot up the wrong address, which happens more times than not in our community.” For anyone who follows the news, the third image below, “The Russian Connection,” speaks for itself. Mechem would undoubtedly agree with Rothko that “[a]rt is not only a form of action, it is a form of social action. For art is a type of communication, and when it enters the environment it produces its effects just as any other form of action does.”

By Mac Mechem. Oil on canvas.,30” x 38”. Source: macmechem.com/

By Mac Mechem. Oil on canvas.,30” x 38”. Source: macmechem.com/

By Mac Mechem. Oil on canvas, 30” x 24”. Source: macmechem.com/

By Mac Mechem. Oil on canvas, 30” x 24”. Source: macmechem.com/

Beauty and Terror, an exhibit of unusual art by Robin Bernstein, offers another approach. While Mechem employs satire and humor in his paintings “to lampoon and ridicule the vices, follies, and shortcomings of contemporary society,” Bernstein presents unexpected images—such as flowers and cherubs—that belie the heinous events to which they call attention. The bright colors and innocent figures invite viewers to take a closer look, whereas they might otherwise shy away in a reaction of distress. Her work is highly textural because of the technique she uses. She chanced upon it while preparing a group of schoolchildren for a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, and learning about the spiritual practices and “yarn paintings” of the Huichol Indians. At a distance, I’d never have guessed how she constructs the “portraits,” but upon stepping in to examine the details, I was amazed to see the painstaking labor involved in forming patches of color like brushstrokes of paint. Each work, which takes between 4 and 6 months, is composed of thousands of tiny cut pieces of string (most of which is vintage and originated in Europe) that Bernstein presses into a bed of wax on a flat piece of wood cut in a variety of shapes.

At Transmission Gallery, Oakland, California, June 7 - July 20, 2019.

At Transmission Gallery, Oakland, California, June 7 - July 20, 2019.

Bernstein memorializes horrific acts of violence and terror perpetrated not only during the Holocaust but also on children by religious authorities. The quote under the title of her show reveals her objective: Dwell on the past, lose an eye. Forget the past, lose both. It strikes me as a version of a statement attributed to Spanish philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952): Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. She says, “In general, I have long held the belief that the role of the artist is to reflect back truth to society.”

Descriptions accompany the pieces so we’re not left wondering exactly what they’re communicating, unless we know world history well and recognize the place names, faces, and dates.

“The Ponary Riflemen” (2017), by Robin Bernstein. String and wax on wood, 40” x 34”.

“The Ponary Riflemen” (2017), by Robin Bernstein. String and wax on wood, 40” x 34”.

“The Ponary Riflemen” and the Ypatingas Burys (special security force) in Lithuania executed more than 70,000 Jews, 10,000 Polish intellectuals, academics, and resistance fighters, and 2,000 Soviet POWs. Before being shot, the men, women, and children were forced to strip. Their bodies were buried in huge pits previously excavated by the Soviets to store fuel. The remains were burned, ground up, and mixed with sand to cover up the crime. Prior to World War II, Ponary (Paneriai) was a picturesque village and forestland outside of Vilnius. People enjoyed picnics, skiing, and other outdoor activities there. The enlarged wildflowers bordering “The Ponary Riflemen” are found in that area.

Detail from “The Ponary Riflemen” (2017), by Robin Bernstein.

Detail from “The Ponary Riflemen” (2017), by Robin Bernstein.

The information for “Vel d’Hiv” reports that at 4 am on July 16, 1942, the French police rounded up and arrested 13,152 Jews in Paris. They were told “to bring one blanket, one sweater, a pair of shoes and two shirts.” Some 6,000 were transported to a transit camp and on to Auschwitz the next day, while 7,000 remained at the Vélodrome d’Hiver, a professional bicycle racing arena one block from the Eiffel Tower. During a period of 5 days, they remained there without water, food or sanitary facilities. Then the adults were removed, leaving behind children aged 16 and younger. More than 3,000 of them were sent via rail cattle cars to their death in Auschwitz, the youngest only 18 months old.

“Vel d’Hiv” (2016), by Robin Bernstein. String and wax on wood, 33” x 24”.

“Vel d’Hiv” (2016), by Robin Bernstein. String and wax on wood, 33” x 24”.

Detail from “Vel d’Hiv” (2016), by Robin Bernstein.

Detail from “Vel d’Hiv” (2016), by Robin Bernstein.

On the left in the triptych below is Oliver O’Grady from Stockton, California, who confessed to raping and molesting at least 25 children. He was arrested for possessing pornography of kids as young as 2 years old. Aware of O’Grady’s crimes since 1976, Bishop Roger Mahoney simply transferred him to a new parish after each report of his crimes. In the middle is Saint Athanasius, the 20th bishop of Alexandria, a 4th-century theologian considered both charismatic and highly intelligent. However, allegations were made against him for defiling an altar, rigging his own election, selling Church grain that had been meant to feed the poor for his own personal gain, and violence and murder to suppress dissent. On the right is Bishop Roger Vangheluwe. He admitted to abusing his nephews for 15 years, beginning when one of them was only 5 years old. Because the statute of limitations expired, he was never charged. Instead, he lives on a generous pension in West Flanders.

“A Nefarious Faith” (2011), by Robin Bernstein. String and wax on wood, 29” x 46”.

“A Nefarious Faith” (2011), by Robin Bernstein. String and wax on wood, 29” x 46”.

Although most of the pieces refer to barbaric acts, Bernstein points out that, in the midst of all the brutality, there are also glimmers of goodheartedness. “Lorenzo’s Primo” is an instance. Lorenzo Perrone was a modest Italian brickmason. At Auschwitz, he saved the life of Italian Jewish chemist and writer Primo Levi (1919-1987) by secretly and at great risk bringing him a piece of bread and soup daily for 5 months. After surviving the war, Levi found Perrone and attempted to extend him kindness in turn, but was unsuccessful in rescuing him from tuberculosis and alcoholism. Levi said, “His humanity was pure and uncontaminated. Thanks to Lorenzo, I managed not to forget that I, myself, was a man.” Bernstein suggests that “in the face of great injustice, do what you can. Find your Primo.”

“Lorenzo’s Primo” (2019), by Robin Bernstein. String and wax on wood, 37” x 44”.

“Lorenzo’s Primo” (2019), by Robin Bernstein. String and wax on wood, 37” x 44”.

Detail from “Lorenzo’s Primo” (2019), by Robin Bernstein.

Detail from “Lorenzo’s Primo” (2019), by Robin Bernstein.

Bernstein also includes a piece that reminds us that it’s possible to live in harmony with other people, whatever their ethnicity, religion, or political persuasion. “Lamination” overlays traditional symbols of Islam and Judaism, recalling times when diverse communities lived safely with each other.

“ Lamination” (2011), by Robin Bernstein. String and wax on wood, 32” x 29”.

Lamination” (2011), by Robin Bernstein. String and wax on wood, 32” x 29”.

These two exhibits at Transmission Gallery, so different in approach, prompted lots of questions: How does the artist deal with working on disturbing images, details, remembrances? How do they live, day in and day out, with the feelings that cannot be called uplifting? Do they get depleted and need a breather before diving back in again? Does creating such work help to vent frustration in a constructive way, to express how devastating a situation was or is? Is the fact that these happenings must not be denied keep artists going, especially since, much to our dismay, negatives from the past seem to keep repeating themselves today?

Bernstein says that, after she immerses herself in research on a place, event, or person, “I’m a wreck. I’m in tears. But the minute I start pressing string into the wax, I start to heal myself after living with this horror. Then I can tell the story and share it without sobbing.”

Whether or not we’re attracted to artwork, whether we would want it in our home, seems irrelevant here. What seems more important about some art is that it elicits our empathy, stimulates our mind, even propels us into positive action. But what if artwork stirs us up in a way that makes us cringe and want to walk away because we feel helpless and ineffectual? Or what if it agitates us to the point that we explode in rage? And what if exposing gore and intensifying shock have the opposite effect? What if an artist’s sensitivity and sincere intentions inexplicably backfire?

After displaying photographs he took of dead birds filled with plastic, environmental photographer and activist Chris Jordan found that people responded to them with despondency. He told a documentary filmmaker, “It broke my heart because I wanted the images to be inspiring. It made them feel trauma and despair.” Jordan believes that our world needs a radical change and that an artist can bring a strong personal and emotional component to this effort. After the dispirited comments he received, he gradually worked through his own trauma about the devastation he’d witnessed and was able to come up with another philosophy to guide him, one that leads to hope rather than panic:

What if facing the dark realities of our world, instead of being an experience of pain, anxiety, overwhelm, and hopelessness, could be a doorway into a place of beauty, connectedness, and healing?

[to view his 11-minute TED talk: “Turning powerful stats into art”]

Questions and Comments:
Do you understand art as a powerful tool to express and elicit empathy? If so, how do you respond to disturbing or confrontational images?

Do shocking images jolt you out of complacency and into action or do they result in the opposite? Have we so overplayed “shock me if you can” that people have become inured —shut down and numb—to such images and no longer react? Is art that leaves you feeling calm and reflective rather than agitated more effective? Do you find beautiful images with an important message more inviting; do they speak to you more readily? Does either approach spur you into action?

Do you gain insights from art that references historical events?

Sylvie Beresford Todd, a character in Kate Atkinson’s novel A God in Ruins, comments, “The purpose of Art is to convey the truth of a thing, not be the truth itself.” What does that mean to you?

Show Me as I Want to Be Seen

Someone is always “the other.” If we’re categorized as Caucasian, we’re the other to people who are indigenous to or descendants from Africa, Asia, Pacific Islands, and so on. If we’re Jewish or Buddhist, we’re the other to those who are Hindu, Catholic, Muslim. Even within the same nation or religion, we can be the other, such as the Tutsi and Hutu of Rwanda or the Shia and Sunni of Islam. There’s nothing wrong with being “the other,” unless that designation is used as a weapon of discrimination and persecution, leading to violence and genocide. Ultimately, of course, no one is truly other because we’re all human beings, given to sorrow and joy, vulnerability and strength. But how we represent other people in the arts might reflect our ignorance of them and, thus, our prejudices.

Faces of Indian Country 2  (2018), by Gregg Deal. Mixed media on canvas.

Faces of Indian Country 2 (2018), by Gregg Deal. Mixed media on canvas.

This fact was obvious in some exhibits I viewed during a brief visit to the state of Washington in late April. They raised a contentious issue: What is our responsibility as artists in depicting people whose ethnic culture is different from our own? How divergent are the images when those people tell their own story? Don’t we all want to be shown accurately, as we wish to be seen, known as who we are rather than who we’re imagined to be?

Honor 2  (2018), by Gregg Deal. Mixed media on canvas.

Honor 2 (2018), by Gregg Deal. Mixed media on canvas.

Some contemporary Native artists are challenging what has been incorrectly assumed for too long. They are resisting the misappropriation by reclaiming their identities through artwork. In their own styles and mediums, soberly and humorously, they ask us to reconsider images of indigenous people and overcome cultural misunderstandings. Gregg Deal, a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, has stated in a TED talk that if he does anything different from what Westerners expect in Native American art, it’s inherently a professional risk, but one that he decided he’s willing to take. He says, “What does contemporary indigenous art look like when it is not informed by a Western buyers’ market?”

The   Vanishing American  (1994), by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, WA; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

The Vanishing American (1994), by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, WA; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Detail of  The   Vanishing American  (1994), by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith.

Detail of The Vanishing American (1994), by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith.

An enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and also of Métis and Shoshone descent, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith turns on its head the old saying that describes Native Americans as a “vanishing race.” Were they? Are they? It turns out it wasn’t true in the past and it isn’t true today. In Smith’s The Vanishing American, created with acrylic, paper, cotton, printing ink, fabric, chalk, and graphite on canvas, native populations are growing and white populations are fading as intermarriage and other demographic factors contribute to the “browning of America.”

I See Red  (1992), by Jaune Quick-t0-See Smith. Mixed media on canvas. Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, WA.

I See Red (1992), by Jaune Quick-t0-See Smith. Mixed media on canvas. Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, WA.

In I See Red, Smith addresses the inaccurate and obsolete colonial stereotype of the “red Indian,” “red man,” or “redskin.” Ironically, the red snowman has a feather on his head. “Simply red,” over the face of the snowman, speaks to the fact that identifying the numerous tribes as redskins is not simple but simplistic.

Detail of  I See Red  (1992), by Jaune Quick-t0-See Smith.

Detail of I See Red (1992), by Jaune Quick-t0-See Smith.

Even naming indigenous peoples of North America as American Indians or Native Americans is problematic because, as one speaker notes in the documentary This Is a Stereotype, it is “a simple, lazy summation of more than 500 different peoples with different languages, beliefs, and ties to the land.” Another commentator says, “I don’t like the idea of an all-encompassing umbrella. It strips away the diversity and uniqueness of each tribe.”

Héyóka  (2014), by Ka’ila Farrell-Smith. Oil paint and wax crayon on canvas.

Héyóka (2014), by Ka’ila Farrell-Smith. Oil paint and wax crayon on canvas.

Contemporary Native artists contest the artwork of earlier times that offered limited, even distorted, perspectives about indigenous people. For instance, the Plains Indian war bonnet was often shown without regard for its cultural value and sacred meaning. It was indiscriminately and mistakenly applied to indigenous groups across the country, rather than to the select tribes that actually created and wore them.

Indians  (1900), by Henry Farny. Oil on canvas. Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, WA.

Indians (1900), by Henry Farny. Oil on canvas. Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, WA.

During my visit to the Tacoma Art Museum, I saw paintings by immigrant artists who idealized the West and rendered Native people as stereotypes, including the “vanishing Indian” and the “noble savage.” French artist Henry Farny (1827-1916), was captivated with painting indigenous life that he encountered when he traveled westward after moving to the U.S. In the 1900 portrait above, he romanticized his subject rather than depicting the situation as it was: he identified neither tribal affiliation nor the harsh realities Native Americans faced. While the image was likely not authentic, it appealed to non-Native viewers at the time. European artists freely mixed such items as beaded jewelry, buckskin clothing, and feathered headdresses, whether they were used by a particular tribe or not.

Paul Kane (c. 1850s). Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

Paul Kane (c. 1850s). Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

Irish-born, Canadian artist Paul Kane (1810-1871) is known for his paintings of First Nations people. During two trips through the Canadian northwest in the mid- to late-1840s, he made more than 700 sketches of what he witnessed and then created paintings upon returning to Toronto. When comparing the drawings with the oils, it is noticeable that he embellished the former to create more dramatic scenes in the latter.

Ojibway camp on Lake Huron sketch, by Paul Kane. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

Ojibway camp on Lake Huron sketch, by Paul Kane. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

Ojibway camp on Lake Huron, oil by Paul Kane. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

Ojibway camp on Lake Huron, oil by Paul Kane. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

What compelled him to follow this subject matter was an argument by George Catlin (1796-1872), who had made his career painting Native peoples on the prairies. In his book, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs and Conditions of the North American Indians, Catlin asserted that the cultures of Native Americans were disappearing and should be recorded before passing into oblivion.

Caw Wacham (1847), sketch by Paul Kane. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

Caw Wacham (1847), sketch by Paul Kane. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

Caw Wacham [Flat Head Woman and Child] (c. 1848), oil by Paul Kane. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

Caw Wacham [Flat Head Woman and Child] (c. 1848), oil by Paul Kane. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

Some 20th-century American artists perpetuated misinformation in their paintings. John Clymer (1907-1989) used Chief Joseph (1840-1904), a Nimi’ipuu or Nex Perce leader as his subject. Also known as Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain, Chief Joseph opposed the U.S. government’s containment of Nez Perce people on a small reservation in what is now Idaho and participated in an unsuccessful rebellious 1,400-mile journey towards freedom in Canada. There are many legends about Chief Joseph, but he was not a war chief. Yet Clymer portrays him as leading a call to arms.

Chief Joseph  (1967), by John Clymer. Oil on canvas. Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, WA.

Chief Joseph (1967), by John Clymer. Oil on canvas. Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, WA.

Similarly, Bert Geer Phillips (1868-1956), although regarded for his amicable relationships with many Indians in the Taos, New Mexico region, drew on such popular motifs as chiefs and war bonnets, reducing Native life to commercially viable themes.

Portrait of a Chief  (c.1925), by Bert Geer Phillips. Oil on board. Tacoma Art Museum.

Portrait of a Chief (c.1925), by Bert Geer Phillips. Oil on board. Tacoma Art Museum.

Apsáalooke artist Wendy Red Star, from Billings, Montana, uses humor and irony to address pigeonholing and fictionalizing of Native people. After seeing displays of them as inanimate artifacts of the past at natural history museums, she staged her own dioramas. In Four Seasons, she wears an elk tooth dress, hair wraps, and beaded moccasins while sitting on artificial grass surrounded by fabricated plants and animals in a simulated mountain lake scene.

Four Seasons—Spring  (2006), by Wendy Red Star. Archival pigment print on Sunset Fiber rag. Tacoma Art Museum.

Four Seasons—Spring (2006), by Wendy Red Star. Archival pigment print on Sunset Fiber rag. Tacoma Art Museum.

Four Seasons—Fall  (2006), by Wendy Red Star. Archival pigment print on Sunset Fiber rag. Tacoma Art Museum.

Four Seasons—Fall (2006), by Wendy Red Star. Archival pigment print on Sunset Fiber rag. Tacoma Art Museum.

A member of Siksika First Nation, artist Meryl McMaster is also of British and Dutch descent. In her Ancestral series of 22 photographs, she references the “vanishing race” stereotype by appropriating work from both painter George Catlin and photographer Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952). She fuses historical portraits of Native Americans with stage photographs of herself and her father.

Ancestral 1  (2008), by Meryl McMaster. Digital chromogenic print.

Ancestral 1 (2008), by Meryl McMaster. Digital chromogenic print.

Ancestral 15  (2008), by Meryl McMaster. Digital chromogenic print.

Ancestral 15 (2008), by Meryl McMaster. Digital chromogenic print.

Since art can play an important role in dispelling myths about “others,” doesn’t it behoove artists to truthfully depict the life someone else lives? I am reminded of the The Potato Eaters (De Aardappeleters), lithograph and painting by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890). In Letter 497 to his brother Theo, he explains that he wanted to represent peasants as they really were. Thinking that they would be natural and unspoiled in his artwork, he intentionally selected coarse models and didn’t prettify them:

You see, I really have wanted to make it so that people get the idea that these folk, who are eating their potatoes by the light of their little lamp, have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labor and—that they have thus honestly earned their food. I wanted it to give the idea of a wholly different way of life from ours—civilized people. So I certainly don’t want everyone just to admire it or approve of it without knowing why.

Van Gogh considered the painting a success, but not everyone was similarly impressed. Perhaps they preferred an idealization rather than the stark reality of peasant life.

The Potato Eaters  (1885), by Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

The Potato Eaters (1885), by Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

Questions & Comments:
When you view a work of representational art, do you believe it is an accurate and truthful image? In your own work, do you try to create precise portraits?

Think back to images of Native Americans that you’ve seen in paintings, books, cartoons, dioramas, TV, movies. What impressions did they leave you with? How are they different from any Native Americans you know today?

Representing others than ourselves is a thorny issue in all the arts. Are we limited to create only from our personal experiences? How well do we step into someone else’s shoes through imagination? What role does compassion or empathy play in capturing another person artistically?

Art in the Diaspora

Diaspora is a word that comes up a lot in the news, especially in regard to refugee disasters. It signifies a population scattered from its homeland. It especially defines forced mass migration, often due to political, ethnic, and religious persecution and/or severe social and economic conditions. Because dispersion is worldwide, it’s perhaps not surprising that the phenomenon has led to what we call “Diaspora Art.”

Diaspora art is created by artists who have moved from their geographic origin to another place (or whose families have) and express their diverse experiences as immigrants. Coming into contact with cultures, societies, philosophies, arts, and technologies different from their own heritage leads to a range of articulations in their art. Diaspora artists investigate their complex sense of identity resulting from trauma and displacement, challenge the established art world, offer alternative narratives, protest conditions inflicted on their group, and influence how we think about multicultural living.

Two mixed media pieces by Tenzing Rigdol flank a traditional seated Buddha. “The White Proposal” on the left; “Wrathful Dance” on the right.

Two mixed media pieces by Tenzing Rigdol flank a traditional seated Buddha. “The White Proposal” on the left; “Wrathful Dance” on the right.

People are constantly relocating from every continent across the globe. But that doesn’t always result in diaspora art. I arrived in the U.S. from Europe with my parents when I was a young child. However, I can’t say that I create diaspora art, either as a writer or fiber artist. However, others certainly do. Recently, I witnessed the impact of the worldwide phenomenon of migration on the art of a particular community.

At the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) until May 26, the exhibit “Boundless: Contemporary Tibetan Art at Home and Abroad” features work by internationally renowned Tibetan artists side by side with rare historical pieces. This juxtaposition enables viewers to perceive how the past inspires modern representations and how the present transforms ancient traditions. Applicable to this exhibit is the term “hybrid aesthetics," which describes the combining of different art cultures, styles, or techniques to create something uniquely contemporary. The artists in the exhibit are based in the East and the West: Lhasa, Tibet; Dharamsala, India; Kathmandu, Nepal; New York; and the San Francisco Bay Area, which has the fourth-largest Tibetan community in North America. Their work varies from painting and sculpture to multimedia, performances on video, and collage.

Detail of “Wrathful Dance” (2014), by Tenzing Rigdol. Mixed media on canvas.

Detail of “Wrathful Dance” (2014), by Tenzing Rigdol. Mixed media on canvas.

Artist, poet, and activist Tenzing Rigdol was born in Nepal in 1982. He employs the silhouette of the Buddha to highlight issues Tibetans are dealing with today. In both mixed media pieces, he used silk appliqué and collage to reflect the complicated threads that weave together Tibetan communities in the diaspora. In “Wrathful Dance,” the mandorla around the Buddha’s head is a map of the Denver, Colorado area, where the artist immigrated and earned a degree in studio art. Woodblock-printed Tibetan texts make up the background behind the textile halo and robe. These written prayers also hark back to the artist’s paternal family, who once produced ink for printing scriptures. In the detail image above, the dramatic flames reference self-immolation protests made in an effort to bring international attention to the plight of Tibetans living under Chinese rule. In the image below, in addition to Tibetan text, there is Chinese text, a white-paper proposal for self-governance, which the Tibetan Government in Exile prepared for the Chinese government to consider.

“The White Proposal” (c.2014), by Tenzing Rigdol. Mixed media on canvas.

“The White Proposal” (c.2014), by Tenzing Rigdol. Mixed media on canvas.

The artwork in “Boundless” made me realize how much change has transpired since I sojourned in the Tibetan refugee community of Dharamsala during my first visit to India in 1981-82 . For more than a thousand years, Tibetan artists/artisans made paintings, murals, statues, and buildings in service to the practice of Tibetan Buddhism, not unlike what has taken place elsewhere, such as in ancient and medieval Europe. Sacred art has as its intention the spiritual uplifting or awakening of devotees, whereas contemporary art is generally secular. While thangkas (scroll paintings), sand mandalas, and other items are still created, after exposure to different styles, techniques, and materials, contemporary Tibetan artists do not necessarily follow a long-established protocol or patently religious purpose.

“Milarepa” (18th c., Tibet). Opaque pigments and gold on textile. This portrait was the first of what was once a set of 19 thangkas. The composition relates a Buddhist teaching lineage as well as the first important scenes from the life of Milarepa life (1052-1135), one of Tibet’s most famous yogi/saints and poets.

“Milarepa” (18th c., Tibet). Opaque pigments and gold on textile. This portrait was the first of what was once a set of 19 thangkas. The composition relates a Buddhist teaching lineage as well as the first important scenes from the life of Milarepa life (1052-1135), one of Tibet’s most famous yogi/saints and poets.

Detail of “Milarepa” thangka.

Detail of “Milarepa” thangka.

The artist Gade, born in Tibet in 1971, painted “Lhasa Train” in response to the opening of the Lhasa-Qinghai railway in 2006, a major event with far-reaching repercussions. The images capture a jarring mixture of cultures and belief systems. Gade has said, “My generation has grown up with thangka painting, martial arts, Hollywood movies, Mickey Mouse, Charlie Chaplin, rock ‘n’ roll, and McDonalds. We still don’t know where the spiritual homeland is—New York, Beijing, or Lhasa. We wear jeans and T-shirts and when we drink a Budweiser, it is only occasionally that we talk about ‘Buddhahood’.”

“Lhasa Train” (2006), by Gade. Acrylic and mineral pigments on handmade paper mounted on canvas.

“Lhasa Train” (2006), by Gade. Acrylic and mineral pigments on handmade paper mounted on canvas.

Detail of “Lhasa Train” (2006), by Gade.

Detail of “Lhasa Train” (2006), by Gade.

Dedron is another artist hailing from Tibet (b. 1976) who addresses the arrival of the Lhasa-Qinghai train. In her image, she reflects the odd coming together that is taking place: a Euro-American tourist is smoking in the face of an older Tibetan woman pilgrim lifting her prayer wheel. Tibetan goods (carpets, Buddhist figurines) and Tibetan mastiffs fill another car. At one end of the canvas, there are wispy mists around the serene Tibetan plateau while, at the other end, gray smog envelops a Chinese city. According to the title card, Dedron is a self-taught artist who has instructed blind children in the visual arts at a local school. Both her piece and that by Gade are in the shape of traditional scriptures, which are held by carved wooden covers (see below her work) .

“Train” (2006), by Dedron. Mineral pigment on handmade paper.

“Train” (2006), by Dedron. Mineral pigment on handmade paper.

Detail of “Train” (2006), by Dedron.

Detail of “Train” (2006), by Dedron.

Wooden scripture cover (c. 15th c., Tibet). Wood and mineral pigments.

Wooden scripture cover (c. 15th c., Tibet). Wood and mineral pigments.

Born in Lhasa in 1961, Gonkar Gyatso immigrated first to Dharamsala, then to London and New York, and now lives in Chengdu, China. His work “Buddha in Our Times” alludes to themes of non-duality and non-differentiation. In it, a proliferation of Chinese, American, and European logos merge into the shape of a Buddha. Buildings and vehicles spewing noxious emissions enter and exit the Buddha along roads that cross each other. They imitate the lines and measurements used by traditional Tibetan Buddhist thangka painters to ensure that the icon’s proportions are accurate. According to Gyatso, the Buddhist form accepts, without discrimination, all positive and negative aspects of society.

“Buddha in Our Times” (2010), by Gonkar Gyatso. Screen print, gold and silver leaf on paper.

“Buddha in Our Times” (2010), by Gonkar Gyatso. Screen print, gold and silver leaf on paper.

Detail of “Buddha in Our Times” (2010), by Gonkar Gyatso.

Detail of “Buddha in Our Times” (2010), by Gonkar Gyatso.

Trained as a traditional thangka painter by his renowned father Urgen Dorje, Tsherin Sherpa began experimenting with contemporary forms after his arrival in San Francisco in 1998. He was born in Nepal in 1968. In “Red Protector,” he digitally altered a traditional image of a protector deity, then painted the resulting form onto a larger canvas, combining traditional (gold leaf) and nontraditional (acrylic paint) materials.

“Red Protector” (2015), by Tsherin Sherpa. Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on linen.

“Red Protector” (2015), by Tsherin Sherpa. Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on linen.

The mandala below is an ancient representation, giving a sense of where the whirling in Dorje’s painting might have come from.

“Hevajra Mandala” (14th c., Tibet). Opaque pigments and gold on textile. The central blue figure, Hevajra, a meditational deity of Anuttarayoga Buddhist Tantra, has 8 faces and 16 hands holding skull cups. Holding a curved knife and skull cup, his consort, Vajra Nairatmya (Selfless One) embraces him.

“Hevajra Mandala” (14th c., Tibet). Opaque pigments and gold on textile. The central blue figure, Hevajra, a meditational deity of Anuttarayoga Buddhist Tantra, has 8 faces and 16 hands holding skull cups. Holding a curved knife and skull cup, his consort, Vajra Nairatmya (Selfless One) embraces him.

Detail of “Hevajra Mandala” (14th c., Tibet).

Detail of “Hevajra Mandala” (14th c., Tibet).

Tsherin Sherpa also created “Kalacakra,” a 16-panel work in which he explores issues of illusion and perception. He dissected the image to provide an opportunity for viewers to complete it in their own minds. He uses the traditional form of the father-mother (yab-yum) union that represents wisdom and compassion, both of which are necessary to attain enlightenment. Despite the nearby sculpture of Cakrasamvara with Vajravarahi (see below Sherpa’s painting), it is difficult to bridge the gaps in canvas, suggesting that we question our perceived assumptions about the world around us.

“Kalacakra” [“wheel(s) of time”] (no date), by Tsherin Sherpa. Mineral pigments on canvas.

“Kalacakra” [“wheel(s) of time”] (no date), by Tsherin Sherpa. Mineral pigments on canvas.

On the right, Sahaja Cakrasamvara with Vajravarahi (16th c., Tibet), silver, copper and gilt-copper. On the left, Vajrapani (16th c., Tibet), represents an unwavering ability to vanquish negativity.

On the right, Sahaja Cakrasamvara with Vajravarahi (16th c., Tibet), silver, copper and gilt-copper. On the left, Vajrapani (16th c., Tibet), represents an unwavering ability to vanquish negativity.

References to self-immolation appear in several other works. Although violence is done to one’s body, Tibetans recognize the self-sacrifice as an act of determination for the entire community. The images can be calm and beautiful, softly rendered, despite the harsh subject they point to.

“Ahimsa” [“non-violent protest”] (2016), by Chungpo Tsering. Charcoal and gold leaf on paper.

“Ahimsa” [“non-violent protest”] (2016), by Chungpo Tsering. Charcoal and gold leaf on paper.

Detail of “Ahimsa” (2016), by Chungpo Tsering.

Detail of “Ahimsa” (2016), by Chungpo Tsering.

“Gas Can” (2012), by Tsherin Sherpa. Archival ink, gold leaf, and gouache on paper.

“Gas Can” (2012), by Tsherin Sherpa. Archival ink, gold leaf, and gouache on paper.

“Gold Child/Black Clouds” (2013), by Tsherin Sherpa. White and yellow gold leaf, acrylic, alcohol ink, glitter on linen.

“Gold Child/Black Clouds” (2013), by Tsherin Sherpa. White and yellow gold leaf, acrylic, alcohol ink, glitter on linen.

Detail of “Gold Child/Black Clouds” (2013), by Tsherin Sherpa.

Detail of “Gold Child/Black Clouds” (2013), by Tsherin Sherpa.

Three videos offer further examples of combining new technology with ancient practices. In her 2018 video, Marie-Dolma Chophel, born in France in 1984, works with illusory mountainscapes. She hand-pours sand, which is traditionally used for Tibetan Buddhist mandalas, onto pre-existing forms to create new ridges, slopes, and crags. Eventually, these give way into the reality of a pile of sand and break the illusion of a landscape. Then she sweeps away the sand and reveals an underlying painted image. Tsewang Tashi’s 2010 video refers to the dissonance between Tibetan and Chinese cultures in Lhasa, as does Benpa Chungdak’s 2003 performance on video. It shows him at the intersection of Beijing Middle Road and Dekey Road in east-central Lhasa, where devout practitioners holding prayer wheels are on a circumambulation route as dogs bark, cars honk, and Chinese restaurants feature lavish banquets. Everyone is trying to adjust to unprecedented circumstances in Tibet.

“Lovers, No. 6” (2003), by Tsering Nyandak. Oil on cotton canvas. Created in a near-pointillism style, this contemporary version of the traditional father-mother (yab-yum) pairing is both rustic and modern, with an airplane, electrical lines, and odd clouds as part of the scenery.

“Lovers, No. 6” (2003), by Tsering Nyandak. Oil on cotton canvas. Created in a near-pointillism style, this contemporary version of the traditional father-mother (yab-yum) pairing is both rustic and modern, with an airplane, electrical lines, and odd clouds as part of the scenery.

Detail of “Lovers, No. 6” (2003), by Tsering Nyandak.

Detail of “Lovers, No. 6” (2003), by Tsering Nyandak.

Given similar situations other groups are facing as well, I wouldn’t surprised to see more diaspora art appearing from every part of the planet. Haven’t artists always had a need to express what they’re experiencing?

Comments and Questions:
If you consider yourself a diaspora artist, how does your art reflect your transcultural experience?

Is it futile to try to preserve ancient indigenous traditions? Is it more viable to hybridize or should we make every effort to keep one’s heritage alive?

What other diaspora artists are you aware of from different parts of the world? How do they combine aspects of various cultures in their art? What impact, if any, does their art have on you and your work?

Art + Science, A Match Made in Heaven?

When I attended university, the humanities were considered one separate area of study and the sciences another. In my art history and literature classes, no one talked about how the different disciplines affect each other. When we discussed artists, we didn’t discuss scientists. Neither was art discussed in science classes. Yet, if we examine the lives of creative types, we find a strong link between the arts and sciences, one that shouldn’t surprise us, since both call for imagination and originality. They inform each other in subtle as well as obvious ways.

Leonardo da Vinci is a perfect example. Considered one of the greatest artists of all time, he kept a daily journal (13, 000 pages) that included scientific observations and illustrations of the world around him, inventions, studies of emotions and movement, and more.

“Anatomy of human neck” (c.1515), by Leonardo da Vinci. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

“Anatomy of human neck” (c.1515), by Leonardo da Vinci. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

Several hundred years later, as scientific and artistic changes exploded , the first half of the 20th century provided new inspiration for new art. An exhibit that I managed to catch before it closes this weekend illuminates the connections that were made.

Dimensionism: Modern Art in the Age of Einstein at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) derives its title from the Dimensionist Manifesto. This 1936 proclamation called for an artistic response to the era’s scientific discoveries and was signed by, among others, Hans and Sophie Arp, Francis Picabia, Wassily Kandinsky, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Marcel Duchamp. It was also endorsed by Ben Nicholson, Alexander Calder, László Moholy-Nagy as well as artists with whom I am not familiar. Interestingly, the works on display are by many artists I recognize—such as Barbara Hepworth, Isamu Noguchi, and Pablo Picasso—but which I don’t recall ever seeing before.

[Apology: I had to take the photos at an angle to avoid my reflection in the glass.]

“Project for Wood and Strings, Trezion II" (1959), by Barbara Hepworth. Mead Art Museum, Amherst College.

“Project for Wood and Strings, Trezion II" (1959), by Barbara Hepworth. Mead Art Museum, Amherst College.

“Young Girl in an Armchair” (1917), by Pablo Picasso. Gouache and black ink over graphite on wove paper. Speed Art Museum, Louisville, KY.

“Young Girl in an Armchair” (1917), by Pablo Picasso. Gouache and black ink over graphite on wove paper. Speed Art Museum, Louisville, KY.

While I don’t generally consider artwork within a context of science—how many of us do?—the explanatory title cards opened my eyes to appreciate the paintings, sculptures, and photographs from an expanded perspective.

Take the appearance of biomorphic objects in art, a result of being able to discern life forms through more powerful microscopes. This technical development revealed an entirely new microworld in which materiality is more void than solid: cellular structures, aquatic life, and the atomic makeup of matter. It allowed not only scientists but also artists to imagine what was invisible to the naked eye. Russian-born painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) was one of them. He “cited the importance of the microscope in his abstract creations and made many close studies of microbial forms.”

[the following image is not in the exhibit, but the double one after it is]

“Pointille” (1935), gouache on black card, by Wassily Kandinsky. Source: www.sothebys.com/

“Pointille” (1935), gouache on black card, by Wassily Kandinsky. Source: www.sothebys.com/

“Kometen” (1938) and “Sterne” (1938), color lithographs, by Wassily Kandinsky. Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.

“Kometen” (1938) and “Sterne” (1938), color lithographs, by Wassily Kandinsky. Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.

Swiss-born Herbert Matter (1907-1984) actually used microscopic lenses to photograph an amoeba. Had I not read the information next to the image, I’d have thought this was abstract art rendered without a camera.

“Amoeba Forms”(1937), gelatin silver print, by Herbert Matter. Stanford University Libraries.

“Amoeba Forms”(1937), gelatin silver print, by Herbert Matter. Stanford University Libraries.

During a two-semester biology course at a Pasadena college, Helen Lundeberg (1908-1999) drew cellular and embryonic forms that she observed under a microscope. They later showed up in her paintings as a reflection of an interconnected vision of the universe.

“Microcosm and Macrocosm” (1937), oil on masonite, by Helen Lundeberg. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

“Microcosm and Macrocosm” (1937), oil on masonite, by Helen Lundeberg. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The title card for Membrane, No. 239, by Gerome Kamrowski (1914-2004), indicates that this American artist was familiar with “the mathematical patterns found in nature ranging from microscopic cells to mollusk shells” and leaves and he also visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York to study such natural forms.

“Membrane, No. 239,” oil and pastel on canvas, by Gerome Kamrowski (1942-43). Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

“Membrane, No. 239,” oil and pastel on canvas, by Gerome Kamrowski (1942-43). Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

According to the card for Henry Moore’s (1898-1986) bronze sculpture Stringed Figure, the British artist acknowledged that the telescope and microscope influenced his curved, biomorphic forms. He disliked “the idea that contemporary art is an escape from life” because it doesn’t aim at reproducing a natural look. He suggested, instead, that “it may be penetrating into reality.” I found this observation especially appealing because I have a preference for abstract art and its ability to convey or evoke the complete spectrum of emotions and ideas without mimesis.

“Stringed Figure,“ designed by Henry Moore in 1938 and cast in bronze in 1960. Mead Art Museum, Amherst College.

“Stringed Figure,“ designed by Henry Moore in 1938 and cast in bronze in 1960. Mead Art Museum, Amherst College.

Advances in physics and astronomy also affected the thoughts and creations of artists with respect to the cosmos. There was a different way of looking at matter and energy, at time-space, a fourth dimension; there was quantum mechanics. There were theories that challenged the concreteness of beliefs held dear for so long.

Austrian-born Wolfgang Paalen (1905-1959) avidly read Matter and Light by French physicist Louis de Broglie, which positioned the subatomic universe as the driving force of nature. It led to his new cosmic imagery.

“Les Cosmogones” (1944), oil on canvas, by Wolfgang Paalen. Weinstein Gallery, San Francisco.

“Les Cosmogones” (1944), oil on canvas, by Wolfgang Paalen. Weinstein Gallery, San Francisco.

Detail of “Les Cosmogones” (1944), by Wolfgang Paalen. Weinstein Gallery, San Francisco.

Detail of “Les Cosmogones” (1944), by Wolfgang Paalen. Weinstein Gallery, San Francisco.

“E = mc2” (1944), papier-mâché, and “Bucky” (1943), wood, wire, by Isamu Noguchi. The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, Long Island, NY.

“E = mc2” (1944), papier-mâché, and “Bucky” (1943), wood, wire, by Isamu Noguchi. The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, Long Island, NY.

Just looking at Marcel Duchamp’s (1887-1968) work Rotoreliefs, I found it hard to discern his intention. Reading the card, I learned that the flat, two-dimensional disc with a spiral design appears, when set in motion, to transport into a wobbly three-dimensional cylinder that moves in four-dimensional space-time. I still didn’t get it, but here’s a photo.

Rotoreliefs [Optical Disks] (1935), by Marcel Duchamp.. Discs printed on each side in offset color lithography. Yale University Art Gallery.

Rotoreliefs [Optical Disks] (1935), by Marcel Duchamp.. Discs printed on each side in offset color lithography. Yale University Art Gallery.

Pevsner’s spiral construction breaks away from a single point of perspective and incorporates voids, meeting the goal of the Dimensionist Manifesto by “stepping out of closed, immobile forms (…conceived of in Euclidean space), in order to appropriate…four-dimensional space,” open to inner space and then to movement. Today, we take for granted such sculptures, but juxtaposed with classical solid sculptures that were the norm for centuries, they interrupt traditional standards. Artists have continued to work with so-called negative space and scientific progress.

“Black Lily” (1943), bronze, by Antoine Pevsner. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

“Black Lily” (1943), bronze, by Antoine Pevsner. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

“Reclining Molecule” (2013), by P. Koshland. Wooden balls and metal rods. BAMPFA.

“Reclining Molecule” (2013), by P. Koshland. Wooden balls and metal rods. BAMPFA.

My favorite work in the exhibit, the one I sat down on a bench to gaze at, is by Hungarian-born painter, photographer, and Bauhaus professor László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946). Nuclear II might seem like an odd title for what I consider an appealing painting for its shapes, colors, and textures. However, closer examination discloses something ominous: a sense of rupture rather than one of unity or interconnectedness. This is the second of two paintings Moholy-Nagy created in response to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Whereas previously he had drawn on a positive view of modern physics, this radical departure in his artwork references the potential and real danger of harnessing nuclear power.

“Nuclear II” (1946), oil on canvas, by László Moholy-Nagy. Milwaukee Art Museum. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/.

“Nuclear II” (1946), oil on canvas, by László Moholy-Nagy. Milwaukee Art Museum. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/.

The exhibit at BAMPFA made me reconsider how a historical framework can help anyone better understand and admire artistic engagement with the world of science. None of us creates in a vacuum. Our art emerges out of the contexts—be they social, political, spiritual—of our times, whether we recognize and acknowledge them or not.

And what about scientists being influenced by the arts? The exhibit doesn’t address this question, so I’m eager to learn about scientists who feel that the arts have had an impact on their métier. In looking for clues about Albert Einstein’s influence, I came across a note I had read years ago. Like some other famous scientists, his thought patterns were highly visual. Maybe that’s why he said: “I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination” and “The greatest scientists are artists as well.”

I’m grateful that both artists and scientists struggle to view and comprehend the universe in new ways, and then to communicate that to the rest of us. It enables us to see and make sense of the cosmos differently as well. What we knew to be true is transformed, and there’s no path back to outmoded thinking.

Questions and Comments:
How has science affected your own creativity?
What particular discoveries or theories have had the greatest influence on your thinking and thus on your work?
If you’re a scientist, how do the arts affect you directly or indirectly?

They Love Me, They Love Me Not

Who doesn’t rejoice upon hearing one’s creations called “beautiful,” “brilliant”, “moving”, “exciting,” “stunning,” “extraordinary”? Or maybe you’d prefer “provocative,” “stimulating,” “breaking new ground,” “a tour de force.” Unless you’re a hard-bitten cynic or you sense that the praise is false, don’t those compliments make you feel good, especially when you’ve worked so hard to bring forth your vision on paper, in paint or marble, with words, textiles or clay?

Source: lifehacker.com/

Source: lifehacker.com/

But what happens when you get a thumbs down instead, and your drawing, dance, play, or poetry is roundly criticized rather than regaled? Does your ego deflate like a balloon? Are you able to keep creating? What do critics even know about the roller-coaster process an artist goes through? And what do we, as viewers, know about what went into making a work of art that seems utterly accomplished? When do we accept criticism that could be useful and when do we ignore it and trust our own instincts? How do we make validation an internal affair and believe in ourselves?

Source: penguinrandomhouse.com/

Source: penguinrandomhouse.com/

After I finished reading a novel based on artists’ relationships—particularly between Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)—during La Belle Époque in Paris, I found myself pondering these questions. In Robin Oliveira’s I Always Loved You, Cassatt considers Degas a mentor of sorts. When she asks him, “Do you believe that talent is a gift…bestowed…on some artists and not on others?” he responds that it’s rubbish:

Art does not arise from a well of imaginary skill, obtained by dint of native ability. The sublime is a result of discipline. Art is earned by hard work, by the study of form, by obsessive revision. Only then are you set free. Only then can you see.

Mary Cassatt. Source: mydailyartdisplay.wordpress.com/ 2014/03/25/

Mary Cassatt. Source: mydailyartdisplay.wordpress.com/ 2014/03/25/

When Cassatt tells him his art looks effortless, Degas gets heated:

Effortless? What do you think? That this is easy for me? That I could decide to paint something and then it magically appears from my hand? That I have some gift, that my work arrives finished, that this is not a struggle for me?….Every day I awake and wonder how I’m going to get through the day. I have to draw and redraw endless lines upon endless lines, tracing within grids to get the perspective right, to perfect the proportions, to establish the composition. And even then I get it wrong. I have nothing of talent. I have only desire and dogged work. I doubt myself every moment.

Edgar Degas. Source: wikipedia.org/

Edgar Degas. Source: wikipedia.org/

Yet, sometimes, a poem unexpectedly arrives out of the ether and is captured in its entirety, as American poet Mary Oliver, who died on January 17, noted in an interview. Or a symphony is heard within one’s head and the task is simply to mark down the notes. Mostly, though, as Degas asserts in the novel, practice and revision are called for.

Mary Oliver. Source: goodreads.com/

Mary Oliver. Source: goodreads.com/

Later in the narrative of I Always Loved You, Cassatt experiences “the exquisite terror of beginning” flooding through her as an idea forms in her mind. Because it was more ambitious and complex than anything she had previously attempted, the challenge paralyzed her at times.

Was the painting as good as she thought it was? She disciplined herself not to answer, for her opinion of her work, rooted as it was in emotion, was unreliable in the vulnerable gulf of time between what she wanted the canvas to be and what it currently was.…The effort of spurning the ugly voice [of her doubting mind] exhausted her, and only when she was certain it had quieted down did she turn to study the canvas….

“Summertime” (1894), by Mary Cassatt.  Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

“Summertime” (1894), by Mary Cassatt.
Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

Despite her commitment, in hours and hours of sustained work, Cassatt was devastated by awful reviews of her first exhibit. When her father observed how much the negative criticism affected her, he told her to stop wallowing in self-pity. It’s advice any of us could heed, whether in art or other situations:

If you are going to abandon your work because someone speaks ill of it, then it has never really been your work, has it? It becomes theirs. You give it up. Do you want to do that? Your work is different; you declare it so; you want it to be so. But you cannot expect the world to understand when you ask them to look at work that is different than what they are used to seeing. The human mind is not equipped to adapt too rapidly. People have been told for so long what is good by the École des Beaux Arts that when something new comes along, they cannot adjust their thinking. Your work doesn’t look anything like what they have been told is good. Ergo, your pictures must be bad. It’s confused logic, but logic nonetheless. And it will alter with time. You must give it time. Why yield your confidence to a bunch of jackals?

“Sleepy Baby” (1910), by Mary Cassatt.  Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

“Sleepy Baby” (1910), by Mary Cassatt.
Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

Cassatt does get over her wallowing and works toward another exhibit, where she experiences the complete opposite, receiving heaps of praise and selling everything. Yet that, too, proves difficult. She tells her father, “It’s too much pudding.” He counters by reminding her of what happened previously.

The last time you received bad news, we had to resuscitate you. Now you are lauded in every review, are celebrated…and you say the praise is too much. I will never understand you.

Her response? That he doesn’t understand because he’s not an artist.

”In the Box” (ca. 1879), by Mary Cassatt. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/


”In the Box” (ca. 1879), by Mary Cassatt. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

I can relate to that, especially when faced with someone who is insists on reason and logic rather than accepting the vagaries of emotion. But Cassatt’s father certainly makes a point to consider. Is it possible to get on an even keel as a creative person? Can we ride the big waves that threaten to overturn us? Can we be satisfied with a becalmed sea? I’ve watched my mind when my work has been accepted into a show or rejected. Sometimes it feels easier to deal with and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s like being on a teeter-totter.

Each of us experiences criticism in our own way, so the tips that abound on the internet vary. For example, there’s the option of evaluating what a person has said before deciding whether to apply it or not. Are the comments constructive or simply mean-spirited? While we’re advised not to take criticism personally, that’s not necessarily how we react. I think that’s because we get so identified with what we’ve written or painted or composed. However, I have come to realize that the situation is rarely, if ever, a case of “love me, love me not.” It’s about the work, even though we created it, and it’s certainly not going to appeal to everyone. And, no matter how good our work may be, there will be detractors, whatever their personal agendas.

Source: penguinrandomhouse.com/

Source: penguinrandomhouse.com/

Reading Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, I came across a valuable perspective she gained from meeting “all sorts of extraordinary and accomplished people—world leaders, inventors, musicians, astronauts, athletes, professors, entrepreneurs, artists and writers, pioneering doctors and researchers.”

All of them have had doubters. Some continue to have roaring, stadium-sized collections of critics and naysayers who will shout I told you so at every little misstep or mistake. The noise doesn’t go away, but the most successful people I know have figured out how to live with it, to lean on the people who believe in them, and to push onward with their goals.

Questions and Comments:
How do you deal with criticism, with acceptance or rejection of your work?
What advice can you offer to artists of all kinds who feel devastated by negative reviews? What keeps you going?

At the Beginning

With 2018 about to end and a new year barely two days away, I’m thinking a lot about beginnings. What prompted this musing is a short piece by English poet David Whyte in his book Consolations. Whether or not we’re artists, I think we can all relate to what he says:

Beginning well or beginning poorly, what is important is simply to begin, but the ability to make a good beginning is also an art form. Beginning well involves a clearing away of the crass, the irrelevant and the complicated to find the beautiful, often hidden lineaments of the essential and the necessary.

At dawn, it feels as though there’s a lot of space and clarity for a new beginning. The complications of the day haven’t rushed in yet. It’s still quiet enough that I can capture intriguing images from a dream and unexpected ideas for a project. But then, of course, I have to face taking the next step with those ideas.

Whyte continues:
Beginning is difficult, and our procrastination is a fine ever-present measure of our reluctance in taking that first close-in, courageous step…this very simple step, is all that is needed for the new possibilities ahead.

Photo by Zach Dischner. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Photo by Zach Dischner. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

I first read Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching in the 1970s. Its Taoist wisdom still strikes me as appropriate decades later. For example, one version of a line in chapter 64: The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

So I take a step, and each one successively leads to another. I write things down. I make a call. I try out a color, a fabric, a design. I draw a sketch of an idea. I meet with someone. I make a connection with someone else. I find out about a grant possibility for my project. And on and on it goes. Why? Because as Whyte explains:

It is always hard to believe that the courageous step is so close to us, that it is closer than we ever could imagine, that in fact, we already know what it is, and that the step is simpler, more radical than we had thought: which is why we so often prefer the story to be more elaborate, our identities clouded by fear, the horizon safely in the distance, the essay longer than it needs to be and the answer safely in the realm of impossibility.

“Abroad” (1882), by Thomas Crane and Ellen Houghton.  Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

“Abroad” (1882), by Thomas Crane and Ellen Houghton.
Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

Whyte’s words bring to mind a quote by Grace Brewster Murray Hopper (1906-1992), an American pioneer of computer programming and a United States Navy rear admiral, who knew first hand what it means to be courageous despite the seemingly impossible obstacles for a woman of her era: A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for. Or as psychologist Abraham Maslow put it, You will either step forward into growth, or you will step back into safety.

“Disparate de Miedo” [Folly of Fear], No. 2 from the series  Los Disparates  (1864),” by Francisco de Goya y Lucientes. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

“Disparate de Miedo” [Folly of Fear], No. 2 from the series Los Disparates (1864),” by Francisco de Goya y Lucientes. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

We can play it safe by staying with what’s familiar or we can create something different from our usual work. We can let our inner critic convince us there’s no way to get accepted or we can apply for an exhibit or a grant for which we consider our work a good match. Fear can prevent us from enriching our life with daring or not-so-daring dreams. But it doesn’t have to. We don’t have to let it hold us back from new beginnings.

According to Kate Swoboda, author of The Courage Habit, we’re not required to rid ourselves of fear. It is, after all, part of our survival instinct. Instead, we can recognize fear as an ordinary element in the process of change. Her advice is to be aware of the fear and take the next step anyway. This doesn’t mean being foolish, but here we’re talking about creativity, not about hiking aimlessly alone in a forest where tigers roam. Each time we do take a step toward our vision, we gradually develop greater courage (“heart”) and resilience.

Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), an American Professor of Literature at Sarah Lawrence College who worked in comparative mythology and comparative religion, believed: …the heroic first step of the journey is out of or over the edge of your boundaries, and it often must be taken before you know that you will be supported.

“Place du Theatre-Francais, Spring” (1898), by Camille Pissarro. The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

“Place du Theatre-Francais, Spring” (1898), by Camille Pissarro. The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

The late 19th-century and early 20th-century artists who dared to defy the Salon in Paris too often scrambled to pay the rent and satisfy their hunger. There was little to no support for the unprecedented steps they were taking. Yet they were determined to fulfill their individual goals in creating a different kind of art. Their names are famous today and their works, though no longer avant-garde, draw millions of dollars at auctions. That’s not to say x necessarily leads to y, only that courage to keep taking the next step helped them to open the door to new beginnings in art.

Lucie Leon at the Piano (1892), by Berthe Morisot. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/

Lucie Leon at the Piano (1892), by Berthe Morisot. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/

I’ll end the year with a quote long attributed to German writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) but more lately credited to William Hutchinson Murray, in his 1951 book The Scottish Himalayan Expedition:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back — concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man [woman] could have dreamed would have come his [her] way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.

Source: en.wikipedia.org/

Source: en.wikipedia.org/

Questions & Comments:
As we move into 2019, what new beginnings do you have in mind? What will you dare to try? Where will you have the courage to go? What do you need to clear out to make room for something new to come in?

Appreciate the Art but Despise the Artist?

Two Sundays back, a friend and I went to see Degas: A Passion for Perfection at our community theatre. Because I’d already found several films from Exhibition on Screen to be illuminating about the artists and their art, I looked forward to this one as well.

Source: exhibitiononscreen.com/films

Source: exhibitiononscreen.com/films

I certainly learned interesting tidbits about the Parisian Edgar Degas (1834-1917): the loss of his mother, a Creole from New Orleans, Louisiana, when he was only 11 years old; his law education forsaken for art; his greater interest in process over product, so he never signed anything until it was sold; his ability to work in different mediums; his failing eyesight leading him away from painting, drawing, and printing to wax sculpture; his never marrying or having an intimate companion; his preference for a studio when his compatriots worked en plein air. But what I had never read about before and heard in this film is that he was called a misogynist, misanthrope, and an anti-Semite. This information gave me pause. It also led me to reflect on a complex conundrum.

“In a café” or “L’Absinthe” (1873), by Edgar Degas. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

“In a café” or “L’Absinthe” (1873), by Edgar Degas. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

What happens when we find out that our favorite painter, poet, sculptor, novelist, musician, actor, dancer, or singer has been outed as a racist, rapist, homophobe, child molester, or murderer? How do we respond? How do we deal with what we consider offensive attitudes and reprehensible behavior? Do we keep supporting the person’s creative output? Do we stop loving that artist’s work? Do we simply consider it a case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? After all, isn’t everyone capable of both great generosity and compassion and awful thoughts and deeds? I wrote a book about a meditation master who embodied sterling spiritual qualities, but that doesn’t mean he was perfect. People have commented on the serenity in some of my textile art, but that doesn’t mean I’m always peaceful. I’m not. Aren’t most of us a mass of contradictions?

“Self-Portrait” (ca 1857), by Edgar Degas. Source: commons.wikimedia.org

“Self-Portrait” (ca 1857), by Edgar Degas. Source: commons.wikimedia.org

All these questions popped up as we left the theatre and pondered what American literary critic and writer Lionel Trilling (1905-1975) called “the bloody crossroads” where art and morality intersect. Like anyone else, an artist can be influenced by the cultural, social, and political climate of his/her times. Do we hold artists accountable for what may have been considered acceptable then, such as patriarchy and racism?

“Tired Dancer” (1882), by Edgar Degas .  Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

“Tired Dancer” (1882), by Edgar Degas. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

As an example, during the Dreyfus affair (1894-1906), Degas doggedly maintained his condemnation of Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935), a Jewish artillery captain in the French army who was falsely convicted of passing military secrets to the Germans. Degas did so even after it was clearly recognized that the affair was a miscarriage of justice and anti-Semitism. Dreyfus was exonerated and pardoned following almost five years of imprisonment on Devil’s Island in French Guiana. At the same time, other artists and writers in France came strongly to Dreyfus’s defense: novelist and playwright Émile Zola (1840-1902), stage actress Sarah Bernhardt (d.1923), and Nobel Prize-winner in literature Anatole France (1844-1924), among others, including scientists and politicians. Then why did Degas persist in his ignoble conduct?

“The Orchestra at the Opera” (ca 1870), by Edgar Degas. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

“The Orchestra at the Opera” (ca 1870), by Edgar Degas. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

I know that I won’t be able to look at Degas’s art anymore without remembering what I learned about him. Still, I can’t denigrate the work itself. I’ve come across too many nasty things about too many well known artists and writers. (I recently read that Virginia Woolf dressed in blackface at a party and was famously cruel.) Maybe that means we expect too much of them. Yet, when someone mentions a scandal involving a politician, I don’t flinch. Instead, I notice jaded thoughts pass through my mind, such as: “Oh, par for the course.” On the other hand, we apparently expect stellar artwork to reflect stellar individuals.

“Interior” (1868 or 1869), by Edgar Degas. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

“Interior” (1868 or 1869), by Edgar Degas. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

In response to the question, “Can you hate the artist but love the art?” NY Times ethics columnist Randy Cohen comments: “It’s hard to be a good person; it’s hard to produce great work. Most of us accomplish neither. To demand both might be asking more than human beings are capable of. To deprive oneself of great work created by a less-than-great person seems overly fastidious.” The artwork itself is blameless, even if the person who created it is blameworthy. That holds, unless the artwork is also intended to vilify women, ethnic groups, people of color, and so on, or to incite violence against them.

“Melancholy” (late 1860s), by Edgar Degas. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

“Melancholy” (late 1860s), by Edgar Degas. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

The dilemma is that great art can be created by rotten people and good people can create not-such-great art. There are also wonderful artists, writers, musicians, composers, and dancers who hone their craft diligently all their lives without ever being recognized. Did anyone say life is fair?

“L'Étoile” or “Danseuse sur scène” (ca 1876), by Edgar Degas. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

“L'Étoile” or “Danseuse sur scène” (ca 1876), by Edgar Degas. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

What to do? When I find that a company whose products I had regularly purchased are financially aiding groups whose motives and actions are in direct opposition to my ethics, I stop buying anything from them. I also prefer not to provide any support that would enable the artist to continue what is inimical to me, but that doesn’t mean I have to condemn the art that I’ve enjoyed.

“The Convalescent” (ca 1872-1887), by Edgar Degas. The Getty Center, Los Angeles. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

“The Convalescent” (ca 1872-1887), by Edgar Degas. The Getty Center, Los Angeles. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

Writing for The Washington Post, Tim Page reflected on this issue on November 11, 1995. He pointed out that buying CDs by Cat Stevens meant the money would go to Yusuf Islam, the name the singer took on as a Muslim fundamentalist since the 1970s. As such, he publicly endorsed Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa handed down to Salman Rushdie after the 1989 publication of The Satanic Verses. According to Page, the former Cat Stevens donated most of his publishing rights and much of his fortune to various religious organizations, some of which supported the Rushdie death sentence. Page didn’t throw out the recordings he already had but decided that he would not purchase any more. In the end, of course, it comes down to a personal choice, to what feels right for each of us.

Modeled (ca 1880s), by Edgar Degas. Cast in bronze (1919-21). Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Modeled (ca 1880s), by Edgar Degas. Cast in bronze (1919-21). Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts.

When I think of great art coming out of not great people, I recall the paradox of a pure white lotus emerging from the muddy and murky conditions of a pond. Do we consider the flower any less beautiful?

White lotus. Photo by Giriraj Navhal. Source: commons.wikimedia.org

White lotus. Photo by Giriraj Navhal. Source: commons.wikimedia.org

Questions & Comments:
How do you feel when you learn that an artist or writer whose work you appreciated turned out to be a miscreant?

When you suddenly know dismaying facts about an artist or writer, do you look at the work differently thereafter?

Strokes and Splashes of Ink

Recently I made a long overdue trip to Stanford University. Because several decades have flown by since I attended graduate school there, I hardly recognized the place. And I had no recollection of the art museum that was my destination to see Ink Worlds: Contemporary Chinese Painting before it closed on September 3 at the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts.

The Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts, Stanford University.

The Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts, Stanford University.

I've dabbled only a bit in ink painting/calligraphy (I'm taking another workshop next weekend). I'm drawn to the minimalism of black and white and find the traditional confinement to grayscale both intriguing and serene. Richly black ink strokes and swirls come across as bold and energetic. In Western art traditions, color is essential in capturing scenes in nature, but in the history of East Asian ink painting, artists can create the most evocative landscapes as well as abstraction using only a range of shades along a continuum from black to white.

Months before I went to Stanford, the following words by Korean art critic Jeung Biong-Kwan helped me to understand this difference:

Ink paintings are confined by the paper, brush and ink initially employed in calligraphy. The rejection of color by great literati painters such as Su Tung-p’o, Shih-tao and Mi Fu also played a part in determining that the use of color was a futile attempt to imitate nature. This attitude still prevails in the world of ink painting.

"Dragons Amidst Mountain Ridge" (2006-9), by Li Huayi. Ink on paper. A set of six panels overlaid with a hanging scroll.

"Dragons Amidst Mountain Ridge" (2006-9), by Li Huayi. Ink on paper. A set of six panels overlaid with a hanging scroll.

In the gallery, I learned that Ink Worlds includes two dozen artists that embrace pioneers of ink abstraction from the late 1960s to visionary imaginations of celestial realms in the current decade. They have had training and careers based in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the U.S., and Europe. It's clear to me that the diversity of their ink painting and calligraphy simultaneously recalls ancient Chinese art and reflects the unfolding of modern art since the 20th century. According to the curators, these artists deploy "new media, innovative formats, and experiments in ink technique and application." They're also pushing into new thematic arenas and adding colors. What made the exhibit especially interesting for me is this integration of ancient and modern, inspiration from the past transformed in the present. While I have no intention of imitating Chinese ink painting, I can be inspired by geometric shapes as well as graceful, dancing lines to create my own work.

Ink Worlds  at The Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts, Stanford University.

Ink Worlds at The Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts, Stanford University.

Because not everyone has had access to this show, I decided to share some of it here. However, in this case, as in many others, the presence of large-scale artwork, especially the sense of panorama, and the space where it's hung, isn't necessarily conveyed well through photos. That said, I offer at least a glimpse. Instead of strolling through the gallery, you're scrolling online!

Scroll in "Dragons Amidst Mountain Ridge" (2006-9), by Li Huayi.

Scroll in "Dragons Amidst Mountain Ridge" (2006-9), by Li Huayi.

The two images above of Li Huayi's "Dragons Amidst Mountain Ridge" are an example of this issue of experiencing art differently in person. The set of six panels is overlaid with a hanging scroll. Beneath the scroll is a hidden region in which a dragon exists, though it is invisible to our eyes. The landscape is composed of texture strokes applied to amorphous shapes that resulted from splashing ink onto paper. Li Huayi was inspired by a 13th-century handscroll portraying nine dragons.

"Landscape" (2007), by Wang Tiande. Ink on paper, with burns.

"Landscape" (2007), by Wang Tiande. Ink on paper, with burns.

Wang Tiande is based in Shanghai. While he draws inspiration from 14th-century painter Ni Zan's barren landscapes, he also creates voids by burning forms of mountains, trees, and characters onto rice paper, revealing an underlying ink landscape.

Detail of Wang Tiande's "Landscape" (2007).

Detail of Wang Tiande's "Landscape" (2007).

One of the artists in the exhibit has been living in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than 30 years. Zheng Chongbin's "New Six Canons" is a painterly translation of a 6th-century art theoretical text about painting by Xie He. The curators explain this hexaptych as a reversal of the hierarchy between the verbal and the visual. Instead of attempting to recover what was lost in translation, the artist expanded the possibilities of Chinese painting by creating swaths of completely inked and wrinkled paper painted with acrylic.

"New Six Canons" (2012), by Zheng Chongbin. Ink and acrylic on paper.

"New Six Canons" (2012), by Zheng Chongbin. Ink and acrylic on paper.

Detail of "New Six Canons" (2012) by Zheng Chongbin.

Detail of "New Six Canons" (2012) by Zheng Chongbin.

Zhang Yu's untitled painting transports me to outer space, where we know stars explode in a brilliant burst of light.

"Untitled" (1996), by Zhang Yu. Ink on paper.

"Untitled" (1996), by Zhang Yu. Ink on paper.

Irene Chou adds color to her exuberant ink painting.

"Untitled" (1995), by Irene Chou. Ink and color on paper.

"Untitled" (1995), by Irene Chou. Ink and color on paper.

"Rubbing Sun" is, like the others, ink on paper, but was created in a different step-by-step process. Zhang Jian-jun was inspired by a statement in the Arithmetical Classic of the Gnomon and the Circular Paths of Heaven from c. 100 BCE: "The square pertains to Earth, and the circle pertains to Heaven. Heaven is a circle, and Earth is a square." First, the artist chiseled a large stone, quarried from Lingbi  County in China's Anhui Province, where the raw materials for inkstones are found. Then he lay a wet piece of paper across the stone and tamped into its carved crevices. Ink was tapped into the entire surface, resulting in a black-and-white image.

"Rubbing Sun" (2011), by Zhang Jian-jun. Ink on paper.

"Rubbing Sun" (2011), by Zhang Jian-jun. Ink on paper.

Collage fans will appreciate what Zhen Chongbin did in "Merged with Variant Geometries." He overlapped folded and torn paper fragments and overlaid them with ink and white acrylic paint. Angles and straight edges form fragments of an imaginary landscape that competes with geometric shapes.

"Merged with Variant Geometries" (2017), by Zheng Chongbin. Ink and acrylic on paper, mounted on aluminum.

"Merged with Variant Geometries" (2017), by Zheng Chongbin. Ink and acrylic on paper, mounted on aluminum.

Detail of  "Merged with Variant Geometries" (2017), by Zheng Chongbin

Detail of "Merged with Variant Geometries" (2017), by Zheng Chongbin

And then there are the dense, dynamic and spontaneous coils of black ink made by Qin Feng in "Civilization Landscape #1" and the dance-like strokes in "Desire Scenery No. 1." The artist sometimes creates his ink paintings standing up, using massive handmade "brushes" fashioned from mops that he sweeps choreographically over the paper on the floor.

"Civilization Landscape #1" (2003), by Qin Feng. Ink on paper.

"Civilization Landscape #1" (2003), by Qin Feng. Ink on paper.

"Desire Scenery No. 1" ( (2007), by Qin Feng. Ink on paper.

"Desire Scenery No. 1" ( (2007), by Qin Feng. Ink on paper.

Arnold Chang, born in the U.S., swirls ink into wisps and tendrils that, in my imagination, become plant matter floating beneath the water's surface.

"Mindscape" (2011), by Arnold Chang. Ink on paper.

"Mindscape" (2011), by Arnold Chang. Ink on paper.

According to the title card, Tong Yangtze is an advocate of classical Chinese philosophy who draws inspiration from moral and philosophical texts. In "Mountains High, Waters Long," which reads from right to left, she quotes a phrase from a Tang dynasty poem that symbolizes a person's profound character of nobility. The word forms are distorted, suggesting instead a quasi-landscape.

"Mountains High, Waters Long" (1995), by Ton Yangtze. Ink on paper.

"Mountains High, Waters Long" (1995), by Ton Yangtze. Ink on paper.

Before going to the exhibit, I watched a series of videos about contemporary Chinese artists through Kanopy kanopy.com/product/enduring-passion-ink. One of them is of Xu Bing creating landscape elements with Chinese pictographs, particularly the root characters for "mountain," "river," "tree," and "rock." If you can't access that video, another short one will give you at least an idea of how Xu Bing uses language symbols in painting a scene. youtube.com/watch?v=b7THiXjQv3A

"Landscript" (2002), by Xu Bing. Ink on paper.

"Landscript" (2002), by Xu Bing. Ink on paper.

A scholar of Chinese language and literature, Wang Fangyu (1913-1997) wrote about deciphering Chinese cursive and ancient seal scripts. (I'm particularly fond of the latter after seeing them in Korea.) In his calligraphic works, he does not make a recognizable Chinese character but an invented form that consists of familiar strokes and structural parts of characters.

"Puzzle" (1986), by Wang Fangyu. Ink on paper.

"Puzzle" (1986), by Wang Fangyu. Ink on paper.

Although I have not covered the entire exhibit, I'm going to end here with a novel way of presenting the Buddhist text the Heart Sutra, (The Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom) in two different scrolls. Fung Mingchip edited the text to fit a square composition, executing the characters in "Light Script" with pale ink and "Dark Script" with water. In the dark one, the characters appear only as ghostlike traces where the ink did not penetrate the paper. His intention is to reflect the sutra's idea of form and emptiness being equivalent.

"Heart Sūtra: Light Script/Dark Script" (2005), by Fung Mingchip. Ink on paper.

"Heart Sūtra: Light Script/Dark Script" (2005), by Fung Mingchip. Ink on paper.

Questions and Comments:
Do you ever paint with ink? If so, what kinds of paintings are they: calligraphic strokes? abstract landscapes? geometric abstractions?

What do you find inspirational in the contemporary Chinese painting? If you don't, what dis-attracts you? Do you find it too limiting to work only with grayscale? Do you prefer literal/realistic images?

Waiting to unfold

How many times have artists thought, while working on a project, "Will I ever get this completed?" How often do we face seemingly unsurmountable obstacles on the path to turning our vision into reality? And when will we reach the level of proficiency and excellence we aspire to?

Anyone engaged in creative activity of whatever form is familiar with this terrain. Yet to overcome doubt and frustration, to master any craft or art, we have to cultivate a particular quality. It is one that appears opposite to what we want, which is usually immediate gratification: Patience, a virtue extolled by spiritual traditions around the world.

Given the nano-second nature of our technological society, it seems harder than ever to be patient, to wait with calm rather than agitation, to not expect big or even small changes to occur instantaneously. Our expectations have grown increasingly disproportionate to what's possible in the creative process, which does not proceed at the speed of light.

Patience may seem as though we're doing nothing but, in fact, it is action, just a different kind. What might feel like intolerable inactivity could actually be important subconscious movement. As Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926) wrote in a letter (April 23, 1903) to Franz Kaver Kappus (1883–1966), a 19-year-old cadet and fledgling poet:

Portrait of Rainer Maria Rilke (1906), by Paula Modersohn-Becker. Source:  commons.wikimedia.org/

Portrait of Rainer Maria Rilke (1906), by Paula Modersohn-Becker. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one's own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as in creating.

In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!

I'm not saying that patience is easy. Rilke notes that he "learn[ed] it every day of [his] life with pain." Given the etymology of the word, this makes sense. Patience is derived from the Latin patientia, from patient- ‘suffering,’ from the verb pati. So, yes, the waiting can feel like agony, but that doesn't mean patience is passivity or resignation. When we watch a plant grow, a flower blossom, a tree leaf out--all in its own time--we consider it the most natural development. Yet, in ourselves, we wait anxiously for the unfolding to occur. I'm as guilty as the next artist or writer in wanting to force the closed petals to bloom this very instant. I can't honestly state that I'm a fount of patience, but I try.

Agapanthus  'White Heaven'. Photo by Dominicus Johannes Bergsma. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

Agapanthus 'White Heaven'. Photo by Dominicus Johannes Bergsma. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

However, being patient with the artistic journey we're on does not necessarily mean gritting our teeth to complete everything we begin. Sometimes we need to abandon a project because it's just not right or ready yet. Occasionally, I come across things I started years ago. This becomes an opportunity to finally realize what I want to do because I have a clearer image or I've developed a new skill. Or I decide I've lost my passion for the piece and let it go, turning it into something else entirely. Patience is also about applying our intuition to sense the best moment and the appropriate choice to make.

Willow Gentian (  Gentiana asclepiadea  ). Photo by André Karwath. Source: commons.wikimedia.org

Willow Gentian (Gentiana asclepiadea). Photo by André Karwath. Source: commons.wikimedia.org

Over the centuries, artists and writers have exercised patience in major endeavors, in attaining their dream. How have they done it? Each personality finds ways to stay the course, to manage the detours, to move aside the barriers, to handle the frustrations. I don't need to name the obvious. The history of art and literature is full of these individuals. Somehow they turned patience into power.

The tender fronds of a fiddlehead fern unfurl. Photo by Ken Sturm/USFWS. Source:  commons.wikimedia.org/

The tender fronds of a fiddlehead fern unfurl. Photo by Ken Sturm/USFWS. Source: commons.wikimedia.org/

As Winston Churchill declaimed during the darkest hours of World War II: Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts. And patience is another sort of courage.

Questions and Comments:
What are the obstacles that most demand your patience?
What helps you to be patient? How do you cultivate patience?

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?