LOOKING AT FACES

What is it about faces that compels us to look? They don't have to be handsome or famous to draw our attention. Any face can be interesting, captivating, or intriguing, without celebrity or accepted standards of beauty. Isn't the face what we notice first in others, whether human or animal? There don't even have to be real persons connected to the faces we see in the arts.

Stranger, by Helgi Halldórsson, Reykjavík, Iceland. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Stranger, by Helgi Halldórsson, Reykjavík, Iceland. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Portrait of Pablo Picasso (1915), by Amedeo Modigliani. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Portrait of Pablo Picasso (1915), by Amedeo Modigliani. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Female chimpanzee at Twycross Zoo UK, by William H. Calvin. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Female chimpanzee at Twycross Zoo UK, by William H. Calvin. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Faith Obae, by Chris Combe, York, UK. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Faith Obae, by Chris Combe, York, UK. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

That's exactly what struck me about "A Face Explored," an exhibit by textile artist Susan Lane, at Vacaville Art Gallery in Northern California until December 30. The fourteen faces on the walls don't refer to anyone in particular. Lane didn't start out with the intention of capturing the visages of people she knows. Rather, she wanted to explore the process of working in a series because she'd read that it challenges one's creativity: ironically, imposing limitations can lead to expansion. The result is a body of work that clearly expresses her own voice through faces that, because of the cohesive quality of the exhibit, may seem the same yet are entirely different.

As the series evolved, Lane found herself considering the latest iteration to be her favorite thus far. But that kept changing. She started with line drawings, began to fill in shapes with color, then created new shapes and even incorporated text, all to support the mood of the piece. Split images--the two-faced look--also emerged. They're reminiscent of masks, showing simultaneously our bright side--what we want to project to the world--and our shadow side--what we prefer to keep hidden from view.

What proved fascinating is how Lane was able to combine and recombine similar elements to create a new feeling in each face. If you look carefully, you'll see the same nose structure, lips, and eyes throughout, but they don't feel repetitious in a "same-old, same-old" way. Each face is infused with an entirely unique look.

To see what I mean, check out these detail shots. You'll also notice the texture created through the application of thread, yarn, other materials, and stitching.

As I viewed the faces in the gallery, I came up with my own interpretation of emotions that I think they convey. However, I found out that my impressions don't necessarily match what Lane experienced and strived for in creating them. What we bring to or take from a work of art is not always what the artist intends. And that's okay. There are no title cards for Lane's faces because she prefers that the viewer bring her/his own story to it. Her own experience in making the faces was that sometimes there was a story about the face and sometimes there wasn't. But once a piece is completed, a story unexpectedly emerges.

Our brain wants to identify what's going on in another face, for that's part of our crucial self-preservation instinct ever since the earliest humans roamed the plains of the Serengeti so many thousands of years ago. Still, sometimes to our dismay and danger, we don't read expressions correctly. The face we see may not be true or authentic. Actors can put on many faces required in their roles and make us believe what's not actually there.

For centuries, artists have tacitly understood how important our faces are in evolution and social life. In portraying them--from ancient Egyptian renderings to modern abstract paintings--they arouse both our perceptions and reactions. Artists can capture a face as they sense it in a model, presenting it just as it appears or revealing something deeper behind the facade. Lane's faces make me want to learn more about them, even though there's no one there but the artist herself.

[For more photos, www.susanlanetextileart.com/] 

Questions and Comments:
What are your favorite faces in the long history of art? 
Which artist expresses faces in a way that captivates your interest? Can you explain what the attraction is?
Do you portray faces, realistically or abstractly, in your own artwork? If so, what is it about faces that impel you in that direction?

*Note: To view the conversation that was started on the former Weebly site of this blog and add your comment, click here or to start a new conversation, click "Comment" below.

What's Universal?

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Part of the internet’s magic is that, even if we can’t travel by boat, plane, or train to other places, we can still “get there” via images and even sounds. While it’s clearly not an in-person experience, we can obtain at least a glimpse, for example, of art exhibits or plays to which we simply can’t drive or fly. I try to bring some of them to this blog so that readers living in far-flung cities and towns can come along as I revisit all kinds of art that afford pleasure and/or stimulation. What strikes me about some of them is their universal nature.

Two experiences in the last few months come to mind: "Safe House," a play I recently saw at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley, and "On the Grid: Textiles and Minimalism," an exhibit I went to in September at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. In both instances, what's universal comes through only in what's particular--particular to a historical period, to a geographic region, to a culture, to a family. I find that abstract statistics about a universal issue--such as the enormous number of refugees in the world today--can be transformed into meaning, feeling, and understanding when presented through the story or image of a particular refugee. In the case of "Safe House," it's the account of one free family of color in Kentucky in 1843, the Pedigrews.

"Safe House." Aurora Theatre, Berkeley. Photo by David Allen. Source: https://auroratheatre.org/

"Safe House." Aurora Theatre, Berkeley. Photo by David Allen. Source: https://auroratheatre.org/

Drawing on his own ancestors' history, playwright Keith Josef Adkins offers a gripping and moving tale of the tensions between two brothers who harbor conflicting aspirations. One envisions himself building up a successful shoemaking business in the white community while the other (along with their aunt) risks his family's safety to help fugitive slaves escape on the Underground Railroad not just to the North, but all the way to the Republic of Liberia on the west coast of Africa. Already on probation for previously helping slaves to flee, what do they do next? Adkins' narrative also asks: What does it mean to be free when the majority of the black community is enslaved?

"Safe House," Aurora Theatre, Berkeley. Photo by David  Allen. Source: https://auroratheatre.org/

"Safe House," Aurora Theatre, Berkeley. Photo by David
Allen. Source: https://auroratheatre.org/

While watching and listening to the people involved in this life-and-death drama, I couldn't help but think of how the clashes between the siblings (or between generations) often exist in families everywhere. I couldn't help but think of the decisions presented to families in Europe during World War II: Do we help someone trying to hide from the Nazis? Do we endanger the lives of our children by sheltering a Jew or a member of the Resistance Movement? Do we surrender the lives of others in order to save our own? Do we express our deepest humanity at any cost to hold true to our values? Is anyone truly free when not everyone is free?

"The Underground Railroad" (1893), by Charles T. Webber. Cincinnati Art Museum. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

"The Underground Railroad" (1893), by Charles T. Webber. Cincinnati Art Museum. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

I also can't keep from wondering what I would do under similar circumstances. It's comfortable to believe that I would help however I could, that when actually faced with such a dilemma, my most compassionate self would step forth boldly. But would it? Would I feel compelled to first save my own skin and those nearest and dearest to me?

These are not easy questions that the characters confront in "Safe House." And they don't have easy answers, for as the story unfolds, it's clear that the family pays a big price whichever direction it takes. Yet this is how art can play a universal role: by not coloring the world black and white, racially or morally. This is how art can induce us to reflect on what we consider truly important, what we'd be willing to stand up for, sacrifice for. Art can be beautifully and skillfully executed and still have the power to shake us up.

[Next post: "On the Grid: Textiles and Minimalism"

Questions and Comments:
How do you understand art's role in expressing universal themes?
What examples from the different arts do you find speak to anyone anywhere?
What do you consider universal in your own art?

*Note: To view the conversation that was started on the former Weebly site of this blog and add your comment, click here or to start a new conversation, click "Comment" below.

The Power of Art to Move Us

From time to time, I quote lines about art expressed by fictional characters because what they say is provocative, interesting, or simply rings true. Recently, two publications offered me more statements to consider.

Source: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/9503

Source: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/9503

I was listening to the audiobook of Amy Tan's Saving Fish from Drowning, when I felt impelled to hit pause again and again until I was able to write down something the narrator reflects on after her mysterious death. Although I gave up finishing the book, I did come away with the following from the ghost of Bibi Chen, San Francisco socialite and art vendor to the stars:

With romance, I felt pangs of love, yet never the passion that overcame my friends. But then I discovered art. I saw pure feelings, for the first time--nature expressed in a form I could understand. A painting was a translation of the language of my heart. My emotions were all there, but in a painting, a sculpture. I went to museum after museum, into the labyrinths of rooms and that of my old soul, and there they were: my feelings, and all of them natural, spontaneous, truthful, and free. My heart cavorted within shapes and shadows and splashes and patterns, repetitions, and abruptly ending lines. My soul shivered in tiny feathered strokes, one eyelash at a time. And so I began to collect art. This way, I was able to surround myself with the inexpressible, to exult in the souls of others. What a lifelong debt I owed to art!

"Untitled" (1988), by Friedel Dzubas (1915-1994). Source: https://www.artsy.net/artwork/friedel-dzubas-untitled-9

"Untitled" (1988), by Friedel Dzubas (1915-1994). Source: https://www.artsy.net/artwork/friedel-dzubas-untitled-9

While my own experience doesn't mirror Bibi's, I wonder how many people find in art what they've had difficulty discovering in their day-to-day life. Is art a realm where we do realize more clearly what our feelings are, a place where those feelings are awakened, even modified? If so, what makes that happen?

"The Bath" (1891), by Mary Cassatt (1844-1926). Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/

"The Bath" (1891), by Mary Cassatt (1844-1926). Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/

Source: https://www.goodreads.com /book/show/25614298

Source: https://www.goodreads.com
/book/show/25614298

Then a friend sent me a quote from Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jhumpa Lahiri's new nonfiction book, In Other Words, about her love affair with the Italian language:

I think that the power of art is the power to wake us up, strike us to our depths, change us. What are we searching for when we read a novel, see a film, listen to a piece of music? We are searching, through a work of art, for something that alters us, that we weren’t aware of before. We want to transform ourselves, just as Ovid’s masterwork[Metamorphosis] transformed me.

I wish I could sagely state why this is so, why art has such a powerful effect on us, why we are profoundly moved by a poem, a picture, a sculpture, a dance. Is it because whatever the artist felt in creating it is coming through to us, eliciting our mirrored emotions? How often have I felt suddenly overwhelmed in my body by something inexplicable as I gazed upon a painting or a statue, or found myself in tears while reading a passage in a book or watching a scene on a movie screen? Or is it that we are conjuring up something the artist didn't intend yet, for whatever reason, we have a need to experience? I suspect it's different each time, our response emerging according to the conditions and circumstances in the moment. We also could simply attribute this phenomenon to the "magic" of art, without stopping to analyze it.

"The Moon" (2014), by Koyama Toshitaka. Source: https://www.artsy.net/

"The Moon" (2014), by Koyama Toshitaka. Source: https://www.artsy.net/

Questions and Comments:
Both Tan and Lahiri describe the powerful impact of art. What effect does experiencing art have on you? Do you feel something similar or different when you're the one creating art? If so, how would you express it?

*Note: To view the conversation that was started on the former Weebly site of this blog and add your comment, click here or to start a new conversation, click "Comment" below.

Responding Artistically to Our Times

If I didn't articulate the question before, I certainly can't help asking it now that I've watched Liz Garbus' documentary on Nina Simone (1933-2003), "What Happened, Miss Simone?": What is our role as artists or what is the role of art in responding to the times?

Nina Simone (1965), photo by Ron Kroon/Anefo. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Nina Simone (1965), photo by Ron Kroon/Anefo. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Legendary singer-songwriter Simone was part of my growing up years in the 1960s. I didn't know then that she was trained as a musical prodigy in segregated Tryon, North Carolina, and aspired to be the first African-American classical pianist. Sadly, the times were against it. At 19, she applied to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, but wasn't accepted, and she knew why--her skin color. Because she needed to make money, she wound up singing pop, jazz, and R & B at a club in Atlantic City. She created the stage name Nina Simone rather than use her given name, Eunice Waymon, for fear her preacher mother would find out she was singing "the Devil's music."

Civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama (1965). Photo by Peter Pettus. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/.

Civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama (1965). Photo by Peter Pettus. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/.

Although she never fulfilled her dream, Simone became iconic in another way, celebrated for her signature vocals. When the civil rights movement went into full swing, she responded with unflinching courage. She used her voice and platform to record civil rights-themed songs, such as "Mississippi Goddam," "Baltimore," "To Be Young, Gifted & Black," and "Backlash Blues."

Civil rights protesters on the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama (1965). Photo by Peter Pettus. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/.

Civil rights protesters on the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama (1965). Photo by Peter Pettus. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/.

In the film, she talks about being an artist of her times and unhesitatingly states that artists have to respond to the times they live in. They have the power to do something about what's going on in their world. While her political songs inspired, brought together, and heartened people seeking racial equality, that music also cost Simone her successful artistic career in America. She left for Africa, and then spent the rest of her life in Europe, where she eventually made a comeback.

Nina Simone, Morlaix Concert in Bretagne, France (1982). Photo by Roland Godefroy. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

Nina Simone, Morlaix Concert in Bretagne, France (1982). Photo by Roland Godefroy. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

As artists, how do we respond to our times? Simone did it with protest songs. American author Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) did it with muckraking books. For example, in 1906, his classic novel, The Jungle, exposed horrendous conditions in the U.S. meat packing industry and caused a public uproar that, a few months later, helped bring about passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. After the Nazis devastated the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) responded by painting "Guernica." It was exhibited widely and brought world attention to the war in Spain. In his statement read to the American Artists Congress in New York in 1937, he said:

Artists who live and work with spiritual values cannot and should not remain indifferent to a conflict in which the highest values of humanity and civilization are at stake.

"Guernica" (1937), by Pablo Picasso. Source: http://www.pablopicasso.org/guernica.jsp

"Guernica" (1937), by Pablo Picasso. Source: http://www.pablopicasso.org/guernica.jsp

American documentary photographer Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) responded to the Great Depression of the 1930s by humanizing the tragic hardship and desperate poverty she witnessed during those years. 

"Migrant Mother" (1936), by Dorothea Lange, Farm Security Administration. Library of Congress. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

"Migrant Mother" (1936), by Dorothea Lange, Farm Security Administration. Library of Congress. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera (1932). Photo by Karl Von Vechten. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera (1932). Photo by Karl
Von Vechten. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

Strongly influenced by the Mexican Revolution in 1914/15 and the Russian Revolution in 1917, Mexican artist Diego Rivera (1886-1957) changed directions from Cubism and Post-Impressionism. He turned to murals depicting the struggles of the working class and native peoples he grew up around as well as the political agendas he favored. His wife, Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), although deeply affected by indigenous Mexican culture, created a body of work in which self-portraits predominated. Clearly, not every artist responds the same way.

There are so many other musicians, painters, sculptors, and writers I could cite from the past. Today there are also countless artists responding to physical and cultural genocide, racism, homelessness, homophobia, xenophobia, women's rights, human trafficking, the global refugee crisis, political repression, cruelty to animals, environmental degradation, extinction of flora and fauna, and so much more. I know some of them and have the seen the work of others.

Part of Diego Rivera's "History of Mexico" mural at the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City, with images of Emiliano Zapata, Felipe Carrillo Puerto, and José Guadalupe Rodríquez behind a banner featuring the Zapatista slogan, Tierra y Libertad (Land and Liberty). Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Part of Diego Rivera's "History of Mexico" mural at the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City, with images
of Emiliano Zapata, Felipe Carrillo Puerto, and José Guadalupe Rodríquez behind a banner featuring
the Zapatista slogan, Tierra y Libertad (Land and Liberty). Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Still, not every artist is an activist in this obvious way. That doesn't mean artists are not responding to the times they live in. Sometimes, they have their biggest impact obliquely. Rather than depict war scenes, some prefer to paint peaceful landscapes or compose music that conveys a sense of serenity. Rather than portray human cruelty and violence, some prefer to create images of kindness and compassion. An artistic response can also be an abstract expression of our innermost feelings and thoughts rather than blatant pictures of atrocities. There's no formula for responding to our times. But in an age of instantaneous international communication, how can we not know what's happening? Do we feel called artistically to do something about it?

Questions and Comments:
What issues move you to create art that expresses your opinion about them?
If you are not politically inclined to bring attention to an injustice or crisis, how do you respond to the times you live in? 
How do you respond to art that is clearly a protest against some inequity? Does it stimulate you into taking action? Or are you not drawn to it because it horrifies and depresses you?

*Note: To view the conversation that was started on the former Weebly site of this blog and add your comment, click here or to start a new conversation, click "Comment" below.