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I had a kaleidoscope pattern in my office window that I’d made during one of the sessions of Exploring Mind, Hands, Spirit and Heart through Art I lead monthly. Dan Harper, our Associate Minister for Religious Education, asked if I’d like to make some more to be coloring pages for kids to do during services. So that’s what I’ve been happily doing with a lot of my art time for the past few weeks. Here are four in various stages of completion.

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Once again I’m undertaking a daily spiritual practice for several weeks. I’ve called it a Lenten practice in the past, but I’ve become uncomfortable doing so, out of respect for Christians. I don’t take it lightly, but for me it is not a period of repentance, much less preparation for the death and resurrection of Jesus, so I don’t want to dilute what is, for others, one of the most sacred seasons of their year.

What I want is to engage in a deeper dive into reflection than I usually do, and for a longer period. The theological context aside, I think Lent has staying power as a practice because it’s both intensive and time-limited. It’s like Ramadan or, in the secular realm, 30-day diets: we can better challenge ourselves when we have a set amount of time in which to go deeper. I have seldom made a go of a daily practice, but seven weeks is something I might be able to sustain.

So far this year, I have. My two practices are to do five minutes of art play every day, ideally first thing in the morning, and to read the daily devotion in Resipescence: A Lenten Devotional for Dismantling White Supremacy, edited by Vahisha Hasan and Nichola Torbett. I learned about this wonderful book just as Lent was beginning, so I didn’t have a copy until about ten days in, but I caught up right away and have continued meditating on one per day. And the art has been a joy.

Do you have any spiritual practices, ether connected to Lent or not?

Black History Month, day 7

Darn. I am too tired to write a proper post. I want to give this wonderful artist his due, so I’ll just post a teaser for now and write more about him in tomorrow’s post.

I love this photo for three reasons. It pulls back far enough to convey how fluid and soft Anatsui’s sculptures appear (they are in fact made of thousands of tiny bits of scrap such as bottle caps). It shows the scale of the piece. And–oh, my heart–it is a portrait of our late, beloved friend Bean.

(Thanks to Gilad Kfir for taking this gorgeous photo of them, and his kind permission to use it here.)

Black History Month, day 5

I love this picture book of the song that came to be known as the “African American national anthem,” “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” The words by James Weldon Johnson are thoughtfully, sometimes devastatingly paired with linocuts by the great printmaker and sculptor, Elizabeth Catlett.

I have not been able to find out how these pairings came about. The song came first (Catlett was born 15 years after it premiered, and the prints were made in 1945-6, when she was 30-31 years old, which, by the way, blows my mind) but did she make the prints specifically to accompany this song? Or did she choose them out of her oeuvre almost 50 years later? Or did an editor choose them? I’m curious, though ultimately it doesn’t matter. The words illuminate the art as much as the art illuminates the words.

Johnson and his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, wrote the lyrics and music, respectively, for a Lincoln celebration in Jacksonville, Florida, where it s sunny by an enormous chorus of children. Thirty-five years later he wrote:

Shortly afterwards my brother and I moved from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds. But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it, they went off to other schools and sang it, they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country. Today, the song, popularly known as the Negro National Hymn, is quite generally used.

The lines of this song repay me in elation, almost of exquisite anguish, whenever I hear them sung by Negro children.

Elation/exquisite anguish. The lines of Catlett’s prints express this paradoxical combination just as the Johnsons ‘ song does. A beautiful book. (The music for piano and voice is printed in the book as well.)

Black History Month, day 2

 

I could do an entire month’s worth of daily posts just on collage by African-American artists. Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, of course, and so many other artists of our own time who are taking collage in fascinating directions.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby is new to me, and I love, love, love her work. It’s mostly painting, with Xerox transfers and other collage elements, and frequently makes striking use of negative space. In the piece I Refuse to Be Invisible, invisibility seems to threaten each figure. Faces and hands, flat, recede into the design. The woman in the orange stripes seems less real than her clothes. The face of the woman turned toward us, though, defies being disappeared. She will be seen, and on her own terms.

I need to see this artist’s work in person!

As I’ve done before, I’m challenging myself to blog about African-American* history, thought, and culture every day this month.

Today’s post arises from my having just finished the audiobook of Letters to a Young Artist, by the actor, playwright, professor, and author, Anna Deavere Smith. She reads it herself, naturally, and I’m glad I heard it in her voice, though I am going to buy a paper copy as well. It’s a book I’ll want to reread, thumb through, underline bits of, pull off the shelf frequently, and give copies of to friends.

She’s writing to a painter, and many of her examples come from acting and writing, but the advice–no, the wisdom–goes far beyond any particular art form. In fact, what the artist M. C. Richards once said kept running through my head as I listened to Smith’s direct, engaging, humble yet confident words: All the arts are apprenticeships; the true art is our life. It’s life wisdom she’s imparting here, as valuable for minister-me as artist-me, and most of all for human-me.

Not having a print version before me, I can’t properly remember the things I wanted to underline and share. (I couldn’t even place electronic bookmarks, because I was driving.) But if you’re looking for a hopeful, urgent response to the crisi/es that we 21st century people face, try listening to the voice of Anna Deavere Smith.

*or African, or African diaspora

Trypophobia, I have recently learned, is a fear of holes. Many people with trypophobia not only give holes in the ground a wider berth than safety demands, but they can feel quite ill at even the sight of a photo of a hole. If you are such a person, you will want to stop reading now.

I seem to be the opposite. I must have trypophilia, because I am strongly drawn to holes and images of holes. I don’t (usually) want to enter them, but I do want to gaze at them. For example, I find this photo of the Seahorse Nebula, which appeared on NASA’s Astronomy Photo of the Day earlier this week, both beautiful and compelling.

It’s a bit dizzying, a bit frightening. I am not a roller-coaster person, but when I look into a hole, I think I understand for the first time how those who love roller coasters can enjoy the thrill of fear and happiness at the same time. That’s how that image makes me feel.

Andy Goldsworthy, one of my favorite artists, has created many works based on holes over many years. Every time I see one I gasp a little, with a mix of recognition, giddiness, and wonder to which I can put no name.

Holes / Middleton Woods, Yorkshire / 1 February 1981 is inviting and also suggests that maybe someone lives in that cozy spot.

His Rowan Leaves and Hole (1987) makes me feel as if I am going to fall endlessly, harmlessly through beauty.

The holes aren’t always empty. Sweet Chestnut Leaf Hole reveals more sweet chestnut leaves, and Hanging Hole is really as much a window or door as a hole; you know what lies behind it, because you can see the tunnel. In the case of Woven Branch Circular Arch (1986), you could even step through the hole–which is a hole, even though he doesn’t call it one.

But I’m most drawn to the ones that seem to go, either nowhere, or into infinity: to suggest a depth within the object they frame that the artist intuits but that would not otherwise be visible. The sculpture he chose for the cover of his book Wood suggests an infinite passage into a tree, and Pebbles Around a Hole, one through the planet itself.

I don’t know why I love these so much, but in my own drawings I’m sometimes reaching for that same paradoxical sense of presence in the space between.

I love this art form, which I discovered when my daughter did some in school last year. I immediately introduced it in our monthly class at church, Exploring Mind, Hands, Spirit and Heart Through Art, and then offered it as a spiritual practice at a ministers’ retreat this week.

The mix of a found- and (for lack of a better antonym) created-art approach helps me get rolling. Words on a page suggest associations, and then the associations stimulate original ideas.

Here are two I made at the retreat.

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Beyond, more time for dreaming

For the first one, the words “an answer” and “caught” caught my eye first. I’d been pondering mystery and my own “irritable reaching after fact and reason” against which Keats counseled. Sometimes an answer prevents me from dwelling in the “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts” from which wisdom might emerge. So right away I knew I wanted to draw the bars of a cell across the part about the answer. I also wanted the piece to suggest a happier alternative, and while the words I found seem obvious now, it took some searching and thinking to figure out which ones to use, and how. When my eye lit on “beyond,” I had that second half.

The second piece ended up being about creativity itself. “A passage opened to her fingers.”

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A sigh hollowed out the chamber of The heart

Our unwitting, but I trust not unwilling, collaborator was Lloyd Alexander, since my copy of The Black Cauldron, from his Chronicles of Prydain, was in several pieces. I hated the cover anyway, which was the poster from the forgotten, and, judging from the drawing, lamentable, Disney version. I’m going to look for the edition with the cover I remember and loved in my childhood, and buy Taran Wanderer while I’m at it: my favorite of the series, which we don’t yet have. (My sister loved them too, and our set was hers, so I’ve acquired my own set piecemeal in adulthood.)

Look at that. I started out writing about art, and ended up writing about books. That tells you why I love this kind of art.

I’d like to share the ones colleagues made as well, but I only asked their permission to put them out on a table at the retreat, not online.

Try one yourself! If you don’t have a falling-apart book or can’t bear to write on one, a photocopy works. To see lots more examples, the best search term is “blackout poetry.”

We went to the Musée d’Art Moderne with the express purpose of seeing a mural called “The Electricity Fairy” by Raoul Dufy. Joy’s discovery of this mural’s existence was an occasion for amazement, since she loves Dufy and, well, electricity is her career and her passion. So off we went to the museum, only to discover that the mural is not available for viewing.

One silver lining to this disappointment was that, as I wandered the permanent collection looking for the mural, I came across this painting by Anton Räderscheidt, a German artist who lived 1892-1970.

raderscheidt

 I looked at the face of the artist and the face on his drawing and said to myself, “It’s going to be called ‘Self-Portrait.'” And it is! He painted it in 1928.
Genderqueer? Surrealist? Both? Other? Whatever, I wanted to share it with all my gender nonconforming dear ones. And Räderscheidt joins the growing list of Artists I Need to Learn More About.

Today, our third full day in Paris, the schedule was:

  • Musee de L’Orangerie, with its two oval rooms immersing the viewers in Monet’s water lilies. There are lots of other Impressionist paintings as well, and a temporary exhibition on the influence of Impressionism on U.S. American Abstract Expressionists.
  • On the walk over, a surprise encounter with the United States’s biggest Francophile. You know how you run into your countryfolk whenever you’re abroad . . . This one was in Paris meeting lots of different ladies.jeffersoninparis
  • Musee d’Orsay, the former train station that’s a work of art in itself and that houses hundreds of Impressionist and related works.
  • Great food before, after, and in between.

Favorite overhead remarks from Musee D’Orsay:

(pointing) “That’s famous, and that’s famous, and that’s famous . . .”

This made me smile because, as far as I could see, she didn’t give the famous paintings more attention. She just wanted to note which ones she’d seen before. Many years ago, I was given a book of this museum’s collection, so today I didn’t always know whether the familiarity of a piece meant I’d seen it in the book, it was widely known, or maybe it had showed a dangerous alien in a window, galvanizing the 11th Doctor to travel to Auvers to find van Gogh.

The Church at Auvers, Vincent van Gogh, 1890. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

If you look closely at the windows, you will note that there is no longer an alien. Thanks, Doctor! (You’ll just have to watch the whole episode, which is called “Vincent and the Doctor” and aired June 5, 2010. It’s a really good one.)

Mother, with daughter by a Van Gogh painting: That’s a self-portrait.

Daughter: How’d he do that? Oh, wait. I bet he took a picture of himself.

I heard no response. I’d really like to know how the mother answered, if at all.

Person looking at same self-portrait, to friend: Do you think he was really a redhead, or just painted himself that way?

I love that painting. The swirls of the background and the swirls of his hair, face, and clothes meld, as if he is trying to express how much he is at the mercy of his environment, or perhaps how seamlessly he fits into it. His expression makes me lean toward the former interpretation.

The Musee D’Orsay also had a temporary exhibit of beautiful Baltic paintings of the same era, and not enough time left for us to contemplate them. The exhibit focused on symbolism in the art, much of which drew on folktales of the region; Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania were becoming independent nations, and artists, like others, might have been pondering what created a sense of national identity. Now I want to find out more about Mikalojus Čiurlionis, Balder Tomasberg and Pēteris Krastiņš–the three whose pieces, in my too-rapid trot through the exhibit, caught my eye enough for me to stop and do that annoying thing of snapping photos of the pieces and their labels rather than taking the time to look at them. But it was almost 6 p.m., and needs must. About half of my ancestors emigrated from Latvia, yet I know nothing of these folktales or these artists (Krastiņš was Latvian).

Amongst the stunning works by Degas, Cassatt, Cezanne, Sisley, Seurat, van Gogh, Gauguin, an artist neither of us had ever heard of named Eva Gonzales, and another named Maximilien Luce who was a political (!) pointillist (!), we saw many by Renoir. Only a very few of these last did not make us want to scratch our eyes out. I cannot stand his paintings, which, as Joy articulated perfectly, look like someone smeared Vaseline on the lens, the way, for example, a Star Trek director will do to show Jill Ireland from a smitten Spock’s point of view. I’m so glad to be married to someone who also loves to go to art museums and hates Renoir, as does God. She’s wrong about Rothko, but you have to have some differences in a marriage.

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