Mining the Past, Creating in the Present

Earlier this month, I spent a whirlwind weekend in the SF Bay Area, combining art exhibits, a film, and meetings. Although all different, they stimulated thoughts about originality, an issue that often arises in artistic circles: If I use cloth that someone else dyed or wove or embroidered, is my textile art not original? If the artist "copies" someone else's work but gives it a slightly different twist, is that plagiarism? Whose art is it anyway?

Jim Jarmusch. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wcUwxcbhtdQ

Jim Jarmusch. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wcUwxcbhtdQ

This all started with the film "Paterson." Curious about what was behind the story--the daily life of a bus driver who's also a poet--I decided to do an internet search. In the process of reading about the filmmaker, Jim Jarmusch, I came across something he said in an interview:

Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.

Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don't bother concealing your thievery--celebrate it if you like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: "It's not where you take things from, it's where you take them to."

Godard's quote has stayed with me: What we do with what we've "taken," where we go with it, is what counts. After all, is there any subject matter for art that doesn't already exist? When it comes to what inspires us to create something new, we turn to the past and to perennial sources--nature, emotions, people, animals, ideas, beliefs, geometry, and so on. In a sense, it's like playing a piano. In an address presented on the occasion of his 2014 exhibition "Let the Games Begin," Gerhardt Knodel, fiber artist and former director at Cranbrook Academy of Art, said:

A piano offers eighty-eight keys to be played. Which ones to choose? Endless combinations have been explored, realms of melodies and harmonies and rhythms have been uncovered in that field of eighty-eight keys, but the appetite for pursuing the potential is not spoiled by what has been done before.

On the contrary, we mine from the past what captures our attention and fuels our creativity in the present.

Screened Icosahedral Lamp (2013), by Phil Webster; 3D-printed plaster composite with LED light.

Screened Icosahedral Lamp (2013), by Phil Webster; 3D-printed plaster composite with LED light.

Coincidental to my going to the movies, earlier in the day, I viewed "Reverberating Echoes: Contemporary Art Inspired by Traditional Islamic Art," curated by Carol Bier, at the Doug Adams Gallery in Berkeley. In the show's title, notice the word "Inspired by" rather than "Designs Stolen from." The seven artists of diverse backgrounds draw upon an Islamic visual heritage, one which is not necessarily inherent in each one's personal history. Does that mean that they're appropriating from another culture, that they're copying the patterns of anonymous artists and artisans from the past? Or can we see their artwork as appreciation? The old adage, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," comes to mind. Two examples from the show follow.

Born in Michigan, conceptual artist Nazanin Hedayat Munroe has studied Persian art history. In the work below, she combines textiles that recall "the sheen, drapery, and translucency of silk, long cherished in the visual arts of Iran." She also references the poetry of Nizami (d. 1209) and Hafez (d. 1389). But clearly she has originated her own expression.

"100 Destinies, 2015," by Nazanin Hedayat Munroe. Textile and mixedmedia installation: hand-painted silk gown, dressmaker's form, thread, map pins, and poems of Hafez on cardstock.

"100 Destinies, 2015," by Nazanin Hedayat Munroe. Textile and mixedmedia installation: hand-painted silk gown, dressmaker's form, thread, map pins, and poems of Hafez on cardstock.

Detail of "100 Destinies, 2015," by Nazanin Hedayat Munroe.

Detail of "100 Destinies, 2015," by Nazanin Hedayat Munroe.

Chris Palmer, born in Pennsylvania, studied origami with Japanese masters and also visited the Alhambra (Moorish palace and fortress complex) in Spain. Using mathematical formulas, he explores the two distinct and ancient cultural traditions of tilings and tessellations by folding handmade paper and undyed silk to create lines and geometric patterns.

"Shadowfold Whirlspools" (1997), folded and pleated silk, uncut and undyed, by Chris Palmer.

"Shadowfold Whirlspools" (1997), folded and pleated silk, uncut and undyed, by Chris Palmer.

"Shadowfold Zillij Dodecagrams" (2010) and "Shadowfold Zillij Octagrams" (1997), folded and pleated silk, uncut and undyed, by Chris Palmer.

"Shadowfold Zillij Dodecagrams" (2010) and "Shadowfold Zillij Octagrams" (1997), folded and pleated silk, uncut and undyed, by Chris Palmer.

Folded and pleated silk, uncut and undyed, (detail), by Chris Palmer.

Folded and pleated silk, uncut and undyed, (detail), by Chris Palmer.

Folded and pleated silk, uncut and undyed, (detail), by Chris Palmer.

Folded and pleated silk, uncut and undyed, (detail), by Chris Palmer.

[If you can get to Berkeley to see these works up close as well as those of the other artists, the exhibit runs until May 26.]

Then the latest member magazine from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SF MOMA) came in the mail and, once again, the question of inspiration and originality popped up. This time, it concerns two celebrated artists, one French, the other American. Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) first became obsessed with the art of Henri Matisse (1869-1954) when he was a student at Stanford University. As he put it, "Right there I made contact with Matisse, and it has just stuck with me all the way." Over time, Diebenkorn incorporated elements--both the how and the what to paint--that drew him to the French painter's oeuvre. The upcoming exhibition at SF MOMA includes about 100 paintings and drawings by both artists. When you look at two below, do you doubt originality? 

"View of Notre Dame" (1914), by Henri Matisse. Museum of Modern Art, NY.  Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/View_of_Notre-Dame

"View of Notre Dame" (1914), by Henri Matisse. Museum of Modern Art, NY. 
Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/View_of_Notre-Dame

"Ocean Park #79 (1975), by Richard Diebenkorn. Museum of Modern Art, Fort Worth, Texas. ©The Estate of Richard Diebenkorn. Source: http://www.themodern.org/ocean-park-79

"Ocean Park #79 (1975), by Richard Diebenkorn. Museum of Modern Art, Fort Worth, Texas. ©The Estate of Richard Diebenkorn. Source: http://www.themodern.org/ocean-park-79

There are countless instances in which artists become enchanted and engaged with the art of another culture or a particular painter, sculptor, weaver, or ceramist. And why not? As American painter Lee Krasner (1908-1984) once said, "We are all influenced by other artists. Art brings about art." We come across things that others have made: We like the way they patterned the fabric. We're drawn to the mark-making or the combination of gems and metals or the thick brush strokes. We're dazzled by the geometrical pattern in a mosaic floor. If we then create something using those inspirations, is our work still original?
[see also 17 August 2014 post: exploringtheheartofit.weebly.com/blog/whats-original]

I look for understanding about this issue through a bit of etymology. The word "origin" is derived from the Latin oriri, to rise, and defined as "the point at which something begins or rises...something that creates, causes, or gives rise to another." By the 14th century, "original" meant "not secondary, derivative, or imitative" but "inventive; new." Since 1942, "originality" is construed as "freshness of aspect, design, or style; the power of independent thought or constructive imagination." Perhaps "constructive imagination" is the answer. Using what we chance upon, are drawn to, or find interesting, we use our imagination to construct something new, something that authentically originates from ourselves.

Questions and Comments:
What does originality mean to you?
If you find yourself wanting to use something from another artist, how do you make it your own?
What examples of blatant imitation, copying, or plagiarism come to mind? 

*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.

Memories and Art

We all have memories, lasting and fleeting. Over time, new ones appear while others gradually fade away; some become more vivid or change in tone and content. And then there are those memories that aren't really our own yet haunt us, memories of episodes that occurred many decades before we were born.

The arts have been and continue to be a particularly fertile ground where all kinds of memories, pleasant and unpleasant, have seeded new work. An exhibit in San Francisco is a particularly good example of this. From Generation to Generation: Inherited Memory and Contemporary Art is on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) until April 2. It brings attention to the stories that were lived by others but somehow turned into the artists' stories as well.

"What Goes Without Saying" (2012), by Hank Willis Thomas. Wooden pillory and microphone.

"What Goes Without Saying" (2012), by Hank Willis Thomas. Wooden pillory and microphone.

CJM Assistant Curator Pierre-François Galpin and independent curator Lily Siegel have brought together the work of 24 artists who grapple with their past--secondhand rather than direct experiences. A widely diverse group, they question and reflect on ancestral and collective memory through sculpture, installations, fiber, photography, sound, video, and mixed media. While at least five artists focus on the Holocaust, others address the American War in Vietnam and Cambodia, the Turkish genocide of Armenians, the legacy of racial injustice in America, the Korean War, World War II in Okinawa and Greece, the Mexican Revolution, indigenous culture in Alaska, and more.

Kevlar Fighting Costumes (2015), by Nao Bustamente. An homage to the courageous women soldiers (soldaderas) who fought in the Mexico revolution (1910-20. Re-imagined traditional garments, only now with protection against bullets and knives.

Kevlar Fighting Costumes (2015), by Nao Bustamente. An homage to the courageous women soldiers (soldaderas) who fought in the Mexico revolution (1910-20. Re-imagined traditional garments, only now with protection against bullets and knives.

The exhibit is multi-layered, appealing to our senses and emotions, provoking not only thought but also compassion. It was originally inspired by Dr. Marianne Hirsch's research on what she calls "postmemory." Because there is so much to convey about this subject and about the individual artists themselves--how such memories affect them and how they work with them through their art--I can't begin to address this all here. Nor can I include photos of everything, especially because of the mirror effect of some pieces (basically, you'd see me taking a picture!). I'll introduce a few examples and, if you're interested, you can watch vimeos, skypes, panel presentations, and other communications from the artists on the CJM website. Given the enormous number of refugees in the world since the 20th century, this is an extremely compelling issue. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that there is a huge population suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome because of their own memories and those of generations before them.

From the series "Immortality: The Remnants of the Vietnam and American War,” by Binh Danh.

From the series "Immortality: The Remnants of the Vietnam and American War,” by Binh Danh.

Artist Binh Danh, who visited Vietnam for the first time since he left as a child on a refugee boat in the 1980s, was struck by how much the landscape has remembered the trauma of war. Growing up in the U.S., he saw photos of children with missing limbs because of bombings and Agent Orange. To capture those times and effects, Binh Danh uses the natural chlorophyll process. He produces a digital transparency, places it on top of a living leaf, sandwiches that between glass and a backing board, and then exposes it to the sun. Combining technology and nature in this way is new to me, so I was especially struck by how well it represents the poignant tragedy of war in Vietnam in the fragility of a leaf. As the leaves die, so will the pictures, though memories linger.

"Mother Load" (1996), by Yong Soon Min.

"Mother Load" (1996), by Yong Soon Min.

Yong Soon Min, born as the Korean War ended, immigrated to California when she was seven years old. She uses the Korean tradition of bojagi (patchwork) to create her installation representing different eras. She sewed together black and white photographs from the Japanese colonial period that she printed on fabric. She also stitched together color photographs to make a carrying cloth for a bundle. In addition, there is camouflage fabric representing the Korean War, her mother's red scarf, hanbok (traditional women's costume), and shoes. The artist cut some of these items in half to indicate that a part of oneself gets left behind in the native country while the other starts a new life elsewhere. "Mother Load" is about bearing the load of memories her mother transmitted.

"Mother Load" (1996), by Yong Soon Min.

"Mother Load" (1996), by Yong Soon Min.

If you've read the book or seen the movie, "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis," you'll recognize the name Eric Finzi and the objects in his aluminum and glass sculpture. He is a descendant of a family that witnessed the fascist takeover of Italy and that was deported to concentration camps in Germany. Strong memories related through stories told to us by others can become internalized and deeply entangled with our identity and place in the world. As Finzi says, "A story and family memory can assume as much importance as anything that has happened to you. The collective memory can be incredibly powerful." Perhaps this is so because memory is not necessarily voluntary nor dependent on historical facts, but can be a conglomeration of feelings and sensations.

"Tennicycle" (2014), by Eric Finzi.

"Tennicycle" (2014), by Eric Finzi.

Loli Kantor, a photographer based in Fort Worth, Texas, was born in France and grew up in a Holocaust survivor community in Israel. Bernice Eisenstein, a mixed-media artist based in Toronto, also was raised among survivors. On the other hand, Lisa Kokin is not a child of survivors, yet watching film footage of Holocaust victims as a child in Long Island, New York, traumatized her as though she, too, could experience the horrors. She has spent a great deal of her artistic career confronting the fears that were embedded by what people she never knew had endured. "Inventory," her mixed-media gut installation on two walls, is composed of more than 1,000 scraps of cloth and paper, earrings, buttons, and other small found items that comprise the lives of such individuals. Kokin created it after visiting the Buchenwald concentration camp, where she saw piles of humble objects left behind by those who were killed. She says that her artwork is a way to process information. Though it doesn't entirely eradicate the terror, it does help. She believes it's her responsibility as an artist to address past events of import so that future generations can place them in an appropriate context. All of these artists are using their work to oppose the unfortunate tendency toward cultural amnesia.

"Inventory" (1997), by Lisa Kokin.

"Inventory" (1997), by Lisa Kokin.

Detail of "Inventory" (1997), by Lisa Kokin.

Detail of "Inventory" (1997), by Lisa Kokin.

Although raised on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Silvina Der-Meguerditchian had four grandparents who were Armenian refugees. When her uncle approached her with her grandmother's suitcase and said he'd throw it out if she didn't take it, she found a treasure trove of documents and photographs. She knew this was her connection to the many people who were part of her heritage, people spread far out from their homeland. She decided to knit them all together by crocheting the photographs with wool to create the "carpets" she calls "Family I and Family II." They're a reconstruction of something old and something new, a way to recover a sense of belonging that she felt had been taken away from her.

"Family I and Family II," by Silvina Der-Meguerditchian.

"Family I and Family II," by Silvina Der-Meguerditchian.

Detail of "Family I and Family II," by Silvina Der-Meguerditchian.

Detail of "Family I and Family II," by Silvina Der-Meguerditchian.

My final images are of a rug cooperatively woven of 2,000 silk ties in the village of Kalavryta, Greece. Foutini Gouseti, born in Athens but now based in Rotterdam, heard a story from an old man who was only a boy during World War II. In 1943, the entire male population over the age of 14 was executed and the town destroyed by the Nazis. Only women and children survived in ruins, partly through international relief efforts. The boy was sent to pick up and bring home what was designated for them. When his mother opened the big package, rather than badly needed food and clothing, she found 2,000 silk ties. For the boy, this was a happy memory because of the many bright colors during such a dark time. For the mother, it was not the hoped-for relief. Not knowing what else to do with the ties, she wove a traditional kourelou carpet. The old man remembers that they were starving and freezing, but they could walk and sit on silk. Gouseti's Kalavryta 2012 is a contemporary recreation of the one that was made from the strange gift of ties.

"Kalavryta 2012," by Fotini Gouseti.

"Kalavryta 2012," by Fotini Gouseti.

Detail of "Kalavryta 2012," by Fotini Gouseti.

Detail of "Kalavryta 2012," by Fotini Gouseti.

While the exhibit title refers to a phrase found in word and song in Jewish practice: l’dor vador—the call to pass tradition from one generation to another--the exhibit itself embraces many historical events of different cultures. Who could have anticipated that this phrase would eventually take the form of passing on memories from generations that actually experienced dreadful events?

Questions and Comments:
What memories have you inherited about experiences that are not your own? Have you incorporated them in your artwork and, if so, how?

French writer Marcel Proust (1871-1922) is famous for pointing out how our senses trigger memories. Dipping a madeleine into a cup of tea--the smells wafting into his nostrils--unleashed a flood of memories that became his 7-part novel, À la recherche du temps perdu(Remembrance of Things Past). Has something similar happened to you? Did you turn those memories into some form of 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.

Making Marks: Writing and Art

Source: https://www.craftsy.com/blog/2016/07/mark-making-ideas/

Source: https://www.craftsy.com/blog/2016/07/mark-making-ideas/

Mark making is an essential aspect of creating a work of art. We make marks with a pencil, a piece of pastel, charcoal or chalk, a brush and paint, a needle and thread, and all kinds of other instruments that let us incise lines, dots, shapes, and patterns into clay, wood, metal, stone, and plastic. The marks can be straight or squiggly, rigid or loose, singular or repetitive. They can express emotions, movement or stasis, order or chaos, weakness or strength. The range is infinite. It is with "letters" as well.

Writing is a particular form of making marks to communicate, record history, and preserve religious teachings. It is also an object of beauty in itself. That's why, ever curious, I went to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco last Saturday to attend a program on "The Story of Writing in the Arts of Asia."  I'm fascinated by the unusual and appealing marks that other people easily understand, but which I read simply as interesting lines and shapes, such as this sign in Seoul or these calligraphic versions of love in Arabic (al-hubb) and Hebrew (ah-ha-vah). To me, the elegant black lines appear to be dancing.

Al-hubb, by Larisa.lar24. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Al-hubb, by Larisa.lar24. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Ah-ha-vah, by Michel D'anastasio. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/maltin75/4803612829/

Ah-ha-vah, by Michel D'anastasio. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/maltin75/4803612829/

And then there's the calligraphy of China, Korea, and Japan. While the various images I include are from disparate regions and civilizations--Middle East and East Asia--I find mark making oddly unifying. Despite the barriers we encounter in language, there's something in the beauty of the strokes that connects all of us. Maybe it's because the arts have long had the power to transcend cultural differences.

"Crossing the Frozen River,"a poem in running script, undated, by the Kangxi Emperor (1654—1722). The Palace Museum, Beijing. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

"Crossing the Frozen River,"a poem in running script, undated, by the Kangxi Emperor (1654—1722). The Palace Museum, Beijing. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

E Sun-shin calligraphy. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

E Sun-shin calligraphy. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

"Budo" shuji, brushed by Kondo Katsuyuki, Menkyo Kaiden, Daito ryu. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

"Budo" shuji, brushed by Kondo Katsuyuki, Menkyo Kaiden, Daito ryu. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

I came to the tour, led by inspiring docent Julia Verzhbinsky, with some questions: Do the letters of the Hebrew alphabet have any bearing on those of Sanskrit? Do the hieroglyphs of Egypt share any commonality with the ideograms of Chinese? And where and when did writing first go beyond its practical purposes and blossom into art?

First, of course, there are those marks that were made on cave walls and rocks tens of thousands of years ago. Then, dating to around 3200 B.C.E., we have the earliest cuneiform tablets from Sumeria (between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers) as well as small bone and ivory tablets in early hieroglyphic form from Abydos (on the Nile). Gradually, those marks morphed into others.

Ritmal-Cuneiform tablet (ca. 2400 B.C.E., Kirkor Minassian Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Source:https://commons.wikimedia.org

Ritmal-Cuneiform tablet (ca. 2400 B.C.E., Kirkor Minassian
Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Source:https://commons.wikimedia.org

Coffin of Herishefhotep; Abusir, 9th/10th dynasty. Ägyptisches Museum, Leipzig, Germany. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Coffin of Herishefhotep; Abusir, 9th/10th dynasty. Ägyptisches Museum, Leipzig, Germany. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Too readily, we forget that extensive travel over trade routes has existed for many thousands of years (without jets!) and that soldiers and merchants carried a lot more than arms and material goods. For example, Aramaic, which originated in Mesopotamia and is ancestral to Hebrew, Syriac, and Arabic, spread all the way to the Indus Valley under the Archaemenid Empire (4th to 6th centuries B.C.E.). I saw evidence of this on a miniature Buddhist stupa from the ancient area of Gandhara and on statues of the Buddha. Although Chinese is considered completely original, it's hard not to notice similarities between early marks in China and those made elsewhere.

Chart of seal script, National Museum of Korea, Seoul.

Chart of seal script, National Museum of Korea, Seoul.

The earliest mark making in China seems to have been on oracle bones. I am drawn to the seal script that was derived from such "pictures." I can guess what they represent and find out what they mean through Google, but I appreciate them just for their interesting combination of lines. Since I'm not a calligrapher, instead I'm eager to abstract and stitch them onto fabric or paper. Although I've never been to China, I saw the marks above at The National Museum of Korea in Seoul. There I also learned about the Korean attitude toward calligraphy, which is considered one of the major arts that a true intellectual should master. Historically, to be truly adept, the calligrapher needed great knowledge about literature, history, art, and philosophy, for spiritual depth was valued along with artistic beauty. Even modern Chinese scroll paintings that I've seen, for instance, at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, bring together the three arts of painting, poetry, and calligraphy. 

"Plum Blossoms" (1965), by Xiao Ru. Asian Art Museum,  San Francisco, California.

"Plum Blossoms" (1965), by Xiao Ru. Asian Art Museum, 
San Francisco, California.

"Red and Green Plum Blossoms" (1944), by Ye Gongchuo (1881-1968). Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, California.

"Red and Green Plum Blossoms" (1944), by Ye Gongchuo (1881-1968). Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, California.

"Collected Letters" (2016), by Liu Jianhua. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, California.

"Collected Letters" (2016), by Liu Jianhua. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, California.

"Parler Seul" (1947), by Joan Miró. Source: http://www. allposters.com/Posters_i10212240_.htm

"Parler Seul" (1947), by Joan Miró. Source: http://www.
allposters.com/Posters_i10212240_.htm

For some artists today, such as Shanghai- based Liu Jianhua, a letter can be a visual unit of art in itself. He created Collected Letters (2016) by suspending cascading porcelain letters of the Latin alphabet and the radicals that form Chinese characters. Taken out of their practical role as building blocks of language, they become sculptural compositions in their own right. Liu Jianhua was inspired by the Asian Art Museum's collection of Chinese ceramics and the building's original identity as the main public library of San Francisco.

"Collected Letters" (2016), by Liu Jianhua. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, California.

"Collected Letters" (2016), by Liu Jianhua. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, California.

Those of us involved in fiber/textile art are aware that mark making is a big topic of conversation these days. Some artists stitch in abstract marks while others add actual text and recognizable letters. Painters such as Paul Klee and Joan Miró included marks that are reminiscent of scripts from long ago in other cultures. It's ironic that the more we think we're creating something new, the more we realize that we're tapping into something very old. Ancient art, contemporary art. The East, the West. In the end, I don't see any divisions. Influences and inspirations run in both directions.

"Insula Dulcamara" (1938), by Paul Klee. Source: https://learnodo-newtonic.com/paul-klee-famous-paintings

"Insula Dulcamara" (1938), by Paul Klee. Source: https://learnodo-newtonic.com/paul-klee-famous-paintings

Questions and Comments:
What kinds of marks are you drawn to in art and writing?
What do you use in your artwork: your own marks? lettering/script in your language or other languages?

Lino cuts on polymer blocks, by digital designer and artist Charmaine Watkiss.  Source: https://charmainewatkiss.wordpress.com/2010/11/01/lovely-lino/

Lino cuts on polymer blocks, by digital designer and artist Charmaine Watkiss. 
Source: https://charmainewatkiss.wordpress.com/2010/11/01/lovely-lino/

*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.

Feathers and Art

'Apapane (Himatione sanguinea), a species of Hawaiian honeycreeper. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/

'Apapane (Himatione sanguinea), a species
of Hawaiian honeycreeper. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/

Although I lived in Hawai'i for nine years, I don't remember ever thinking of featherwork as artwork. I knew that Hawaiian royalty (ali'i) had worn feather cloaks and capes, but that's what they were in my mind at the time--cloaks and capes--in the way that European kings and queens wore such garments. But a recent visit to the De Young Museum in San Francisco changed how I view those 'ahuʻula ("red shoulder coverings")I admire the collected pieces for their artistic mastery, especially the simple but bold contemporary-looking abstract designs and colors. I could easily see them rendered with textiles or paints. Since bundles of feathers were tied together and attached to netting made of olona (in the nettle family), one of the strongest natural fibers in the world, can we call the 'ahuʻula fiber art?

Amazingly preserved, the items are from the 18th and 19th centuries. For the San Francisco exhibit, they were gathered from Honolulu's Museum of Art and Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution, London's British Museum, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, and Vienna's Museum of Ethnology, Weltmuseum.

7319246_orig.jpg
'I'iwi (Vestiaria coccinea), scarlet Hawaiian honeycreeper.  Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/

'I'iwi (Vestiaria coccinea), scarlet Hawaiian honeycreeper. 
Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/

When I first heard of featherwork in Hawai'i, I was taken aback by what I thought must have been wholesale slaughter of endemic birds. I've since learned--only to my partial relief--that birds were captured and their feathers plucked. The Hawaiians knew that, alive rather than dead, the avian wonders could regenerate more feathers. Regardless, I doubt the birds thought it a pleasant experience. Eventually, disease, habitat destruction, and introduced predators took their toll, leading to extinction in some cases. But, for a long period, the birds provided the wherewithal for royal men and women to drape themselves in garments that were believed to afford spiritual protection as well as proclaim their noble status. Now we can view these beautiful pieces in museums.

[Please excuse the lack of quality in the photos of the featherwork. I had to take them through glass.]

Hawaiʻi ʻōʻō (Moho nobilis), a honeyeater. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/

Hawaiʻi ʻōʻō (Moho nobilis), a honeyeater. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/

ʻŌʻū (Psittirostra psittacea), a species of Hawaiian honeycreeper. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org

ʻŌʻū (Psittirostra psittacea), a species of Hawaiian honeycreeper. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org

ʻŌʻū (Psittirostra psittacea), a species of Hawaiian honeycreeper. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org

ʻŌʻū (Psittirostra psittacea), a species of Hawaiian honeycreeper. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org

In addition to the short capes and long cloaks, there were also feather garlands (lei hulu), handheld feather standards (kāhili) that signified divine power, and feather helmets (mahiole). The latter remind me of a partial wheel with hub and spokes. They were created by fastening feathered netting onto a twined rigid form of 'ie'ie (Freycinetia arborea), densely branched, woody aerial roots of the plant family Pandanaceae that attach themselves to host trees. These roots allow the feathers to maintain a particular shape, orientation, and arrangement.

Freycinetia arborea--aerials roots attaching to tree. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/

Freycinetia arborea--aerials roots attaching
to tree. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/

'Ie'ie (Freycinetia arborea). Photo by Forest & Kim Starr (USGS), Plants of Hawaii. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/

'Ie'ie (Freycinetia arborea). Photo by Forest & Kim Starr (USGS), Plants of Hawaii.
Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/

I can't help but think of a slice of watermelon when I look at this last one. But it could represent something I'm just not aware of or it could simply be the feather artist's unique design.

If you're at all drawn to these feather creations, may they lend inspiration for your own artwork.

Questions and Comments:
How do these designs strike you? Do you see cultural or environmental symbols in the abstract patterns?
If you didn't know that they're made of feathers, what would you think they are?
Have you incorporated feathers in your artwork--how?

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