Shell Metamorphosis: Works of Rowan Mersh

Being connected to modern culture requires a certain amount of screen time. You and I, in order to share these musings, which are surely worthwhile, have to spend time on a device. The paradox of our reality is that, the more time we spend in this two dimensional, textureless yet very real place, the less time we spend interacting with our neighbors and our local, three dimensional environment. What do we do when we need to remember to get out of the box?

My cats remind me by snuggling up to me at the keyboard, rumbling, enticing me with a friendly purr. My husband and friends remind me when it’s time to go to the store, or hang out, or take a walk. Then there are those quiet moments that we long for: at the beach, in our backyard gardens, climbing a mountain. There are also moments brought to us by art. At a museum, in our own homes, in community spaces, physical art, especially sculpture, reminds us of our desperate need for texture, touch and connection. It helps us get out of our shell.

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Placuna Anima Maris (Oyster Soul of the Sea), Rowan Mersh and Bob Lorimer. Photo Credit Frankie Pike

I’d like to share the immensely beautiful and exquisitely textured art of Rowan Mersh with you. The irony of sharing pictures of physical art online does not escape me, but the beauty of the internet is that it can show us things that would not enter our normal day to day lives.

Rowan Mersh is a multi-media sculptor living in London. A graduate of the Royal College of Art, he has created a variety of work, from kinetic and interactive installations to textile sculptures. Today I will concentrate on his work with shells.

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Asabikeshiinh V

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Asabikeshiinh V detail

Mersh slices the shells, which are sustainably harvested, grinds and polishes them and reassembles them by hand into structures and patterns which he then coats with a fluorocarbon resin that preserves and fuses the piece. It’s a painstaking process; the larger pieces take months to create. These Doxander vittatus shells, common name Vitate Conch, look as delicate as lace. I love the way Asabikeshiinh V seems to flow and move. Do you see a school of fish, or maybe tropical foliage?

 

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Asabikeshiinh II. Photo Credit Frankie Pike.

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Asabikeshiinh II detail. Photo Credit Frankie Pike.

As the shells fit together, they determine the design of the piece. The turritella shells in the piece above were laid with the largest in the center and the smallest at the outer edge. Asabikeshiinh II recalls the graphic designs of M.C. Escher, but with the magical addition of texture. Seen up close, it looks remarkably like a lace textile.

 

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Asabikeshiinh IV

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Asabikeshiinh IV

Here’s another variation on the theme, this one resembling a light and airy chrysanthemum in full bloom. Does it surprise you that asabikeshiinh is an Ojibwe word for “spider? The legend of the Spider Woman who protects the Ojibwe people tells that, as the Ojibwe became scattered across North America, the Spider Woman instructed women to construct dream catchers to filter out bad dreams and hold them until the sun could destroy them. I knew this legend only vaguely through commercial efforts to sell tourist goods and trendy healing products. Mersh’s works seem to reclaim some of the dignity and significance of the original story. Can you see the webs?

 

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Asabikeshiinh Praegressus. Photo credit Frankie Pike.

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Asabikeshiinh Praegressus. Photo Credit Frankie Pike

Asabikeshiinh Praegressus shows the evolution, or progression of the dreamcatcher idea. This time, Mersh has allowed the form to curve in on itself, creating a sort of nest or basket. The turritella shells here look more plantlike, almost like reeds, but still retain their weblike pattern.

 

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Placuna Pro Dilectione Mea II

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Placuna Pro Dilectione Mea II detail

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Placuna Pro Dilectione Mea II detail

Placuna Pro Dilectione Mea II looks as if it is made of soft feathers, but it is actually made of the shells of the windowpane oyster, the same shells that we often see in windcatchers. The hard, brittle, transparent discs, also known as Capiz Shell, are abundant in the Philippines and Southeast Asia. The title translates Oyster(shell)s for My Love.

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Turitella Duplicata II

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Turitella Duplicata II detail

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Turitella Duplicata II detail

Returning to the turritella shells, Duplicated Turitella II leaves them mostly whole, sticking out like some strange sea plant or perhaps a nappy animal pelt. The closer you get, the sharper and more amazing the spines look. An illusion of motion is created by gradually varying the angle of the shells. Mersh’s talent for shaping, which involves thinking of each shell as a painter would think of a brushstroke, is astounding.

 

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Pithváva Praegressus I detail


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Pithváva Praegressus I

Pithváva is a deity of the Yurok people of the California coast. He created the dentalium, or “tooth” shell, considered by the Yurok to be sacred. Dentalium shells were frequently traded among First Nations People. This piece is an exploration of both the dentalium and the god, a physical representation that is almost kachina-like in its significance. It is Rowan Mersh’s connection between his material, the natural world and the metaphysical legends of the past that give his work not only beauty, but a reverant resonance. You long to reach out and touch it, and through it to connect to nature and the past.

All images used in accordance with Fair Use Policy for educational purposes. Please spend some time on Rowan Mersh’s amazing website, where he has many more pictures and works to share.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Picturing Wildness: The Beasts of Henri Rousseau

Artists are often told to work from experience, to relate what we know. There is more to knowledge and experience than physical reality, however. When it comes to inspiration, the inner life of dreams and fantasies is as valid as our external story, and often more striking. It is the play between our perceived reality and our imagination that stirs creativity. For some artists, that play stays closer to their everyday life, while for an artist like Henri Rousseau, it ranges far into the realms of dreams and fantasy.

Rousseau, The Sleeping Gypsy, 1897

The Sleeping Gypsy, 1897

The famed primitivist painter Henri Julien Félix Rousseau was born May 21, 1844 in Laval, France, roughly 200 miles southwest of Paris. His father was a tinsmith. In 1851, the family fell on hard times financially and lost their home, forcing Rousseau into boarding school. When the family moved to Angers in 1861, he took a position as a clerk for a local bailiff, putting him on track  to be a lawyer, but had to take refuge in the army when he “committed a small perjury.” While in the army he met officers who had served in Mexico and was captivated by their stories of exotic locales, which took root in his fertile imagination. He was released from the army upon the death of his father in 1868 and moved to Paris with his mother, whom he was expected to support. He took a job as a clerk for the government, eventually becoming a tax collector in the Paris toll office. At the age of twenty-four, Rousseau married Clémence Boitard, the fifteen year old daughter of his landlord. The couple would have six children, but only one, Julia, would survive to adulthood. It was a hard life, but Rousseau made it bearable by teaching himself how to paint.

 

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A Carnival Evening, 1886

In 1886, Rousseau exhibited A Carnival Evening, not at the famed Paris Salon as he would have liked, but at the first Salon des Indépendants, which showed work considered too avant-garde. Any artist could exhibit there, regardless of pedigree or training. The flatness and childlikeness of his painting were ridiculed heavily by critics and academic painters, who dismissively called him Le Douanier, the Customs Agent. There is a cartoonishness here which was unacceptable to the artistic establishment, but there is also a poetic dreaminess of form and composition that inspired future symbolists and surrealists.

Rousseau, Tiger in a Tropical Storm

Surprised, or Tiger in a Tropical Storm, 1891

Rousseau’s wife died in 1888 after a long illness, and this made him throw himself even more deeply into painting. The 1891 Salon des Indépendants saw the first of his jungle beast paintings, Surprised! or Tiger in a Tropical Storm. Observers thought he had served with the French Army in Mexico–a fantasy Rousseau did not contradict and even, perhaps, encouraged–but the truth is he never in his life set foot outside of France. Countless trips to the botanical gardens, museums and zoos of Paris as well as to exhibitions from French colonies paired with an active imagination sufficed to create his most famous paintings. His flora and fauna are stylized, his beasts often strangely shaped or wearing odd expressions, but these quirks only add to the mystique of his style. One should note that he was fond of stuffed dioramas, especially those at the Paris Natural History Museum, and often patterned the beasts in his works after them. This explains some of the idiosyncrasies. He also painted Parisian scenes, vases of flowers, and portraits, but his strange talent showed the most in his bold jungle and desert scenes, filled with lions, tigers, monkeys and snakes. I think he must have felt more at home with the world in his head, which was far from the drab world of a tax collector. In 1893, at the age of forty-nine, Henri Rousseau retired from government service in order to pursue painting full time.

Rousseau, Seine and Eiffel Tower in the Evening Sun, 1910

Seine and Eiffel Tower in the Setting Sun, 1910

Rousseau, Exotic Landscape with Lion and Lioness in Africa

Exotic Landscape with Lion and Lioness

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Fight Between a Tiger and a Buffalo, 1908

Rousseau, Apes in the Orange Grove

Apes in an Orange Grove, 1910

Rousseau was always on the edge of poverty and supplemented his pension by playing the violin on street corners and taking odd jobs, selling paintings when he could. He married Josephine Noury, a widow, in 1898. Young avant-garde artists such as Pablo Picasso, Max Weber, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Constantin Brâncusi, Georges Braque, Alfred Jarry, and Guillaume Apollinaire were drawn to Rousseau. Picasso, upon purchasing one of Rousseau’s paintings, met the man and later held a banquet in his honor. Always an egoist, Rousseau responded, “We are the two great painters of this era; you are in the Egyptian style, I in the modern style.” Despite the growing recognition he received, he remained an eccentric figure. He was increasingly impoverished and unwell and spent some time in jail for bank fraud. In 1910 he developed an infection in his leg, which he ignored. Gangrene set in and Henri Rousseau died a painful death at the age of sixty-six. The Salon des Indépendants held a retrospective of his work in 1911 and Rousseau’s influence and fame grew with his passing.

Rousseau, The Snake Charmer, 1907

The Snake Charmer, 1907

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The Waterfall, 1910

Rousseau, Mandrill in the Jungle, 1909

Mandrill in the Jungle, 1909

His audacity and his ability to codify and create his own imagery, an imagery that was so different from any other artist of the time makes Rousseau a giant of modern art, as well as one of my favorite painters. Without his willingness to break the rules and to do so persistently, the modern art movements of the early 20th century would have moved much more slowly and cautiously. Like his beasts, who sometimes leer from the shadows and sometimes tear into one another, Rousseau’s far flung boldness of form, color and subject matter wins the eye and delights the mind. I think perhaps the beasts that inhabit his paintings are a reflection of his tremendous ego and gutsiness, which were both  cartoonish and sincere. They were what his art required of him to escape the jungles of his poverty and lack of formal education.

Why did you paint a couch in the middle of the jungle?

Because one has a right to paint one’s dreams.

Rousseau, The Dream, 1910

The Dream, 1910

Picturing Woman: Paintings of Jules Breton

Many painters have taken their inspiration from the female form, but Jules Breton is unique. Trained in the European classical tradition, or “grand style” as he called it, he returned home to rural Brittany to produce his masterpieces. His subjects were not grand dames or famous historical scenes as was usual for the period and style, but peasants, country festivals and domestic life. Eschewing hunting scenes and manly exploits, he preferred quieter moments, most often depicting women. He did not paint with a sexualized gaze, but with an honest regard and a desire to hint at feminine interior life. Breton’s talent is such that he can do so without even showing us the woman’s face.

Breton, The Cliff, 1874

La Falaise (The Cliff), 1874

Keenly observant, Breton uses body language and landscape to create an incredible range of mood; resilience, dreaminess, practicality and nobility are all part of his repertoire. Breton’s women are active and relatable. Les Amies is a particularly wonderful example. We aren’t sure what the woman in the center is being persuaded to believe or do, but her discomfort is obvious–arms folded protectively across her gut, wariness in her face–and we are acutely aware of the physical pressure being exerted by her friends who feel the need to lean in and put a hand on her. I’m not sure if they are offering support or asserting dominance. What, if anything, are we to make of the village church lurking in the background? Is there a man involved? Breton makes you want to be there so that you can answer all of those questions. He also paints wonderful feet!

Breton, Les Amies

Les Amies(Friends), 1873

Jules Adolphe Aimé Louis Breton was born on May 1, 1827 in the small village of Courrières, France, where his father managed land for a wealthy landowner. His mother died when he was four years old. Certainly his longing for her shaped the artist he would become and perhaps lay at the heart of his interest in rural femininity. Jules’ life changed when he met the Belgian painter Félix De Vigne. De Vigne saw potential and persuaded the Breton family to send the young man to Ghent to study with him at the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts in Belgium. Jules was fifteen years old when he left home for the big city in 1843. Studying with some of Europe’s finest academic painters, he would move to Antwerp in 1846 and Paris in 1847. He returned home to Courrières in 1854 and married Elodie de Vigne, the daughter of his former teacher and one of his favorite models, in 1858.

Breton, Calling in the Gleaners

Le Rappel des Ganeuses(Calling in the Gleaners), 1859

Jules Breton http://www.tuttartpitturasculturapoesiamusica.com

Les Bineuses(The Weeders), 1868

Breton, Evening in the Hamlet of Finistere

Soir dans le hameau de Finistère(Evening in the Hamlet of Finistère), 1887

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Jeunes Femmes allant à une Procession(Young Women Going to a Procession), 1890

Breton found great pleasure in painting real people and people found his art disarmingly real. This translated into a striking balance between artistic satisfaction and commercial success. His paintings were so popular that he frequently painted copies and had engravings made, all of which sold well. In 1880, Vincent van Gogh walked eighty-five miles to visit the important painter, only to get cold feet and turn around upon reaching the high wall around Breton’s property. By the time of his death in 1906, at the age of 79, Jules Breton was a famous international master, a member of the Institut de France and the Royal Academy of Art and a Commander of the Legion of Honor. He was also a published poet and writer.

Breton, Sur la Route en Hiver

Sur la Route en Hiver(On the Road in Winter), 1884

Breton, Fin du Travail, 1887

Fin du Travail(End of Work), 1884

Painters without experience often weaken the effect they wish to produce by a prodigality which multiplies uselessly the figures and accessories of a picture. It will not be long before they learn that, the greater the conciseness and simplicity with which a thought is interpreted, the more it gains in expressive force.

Breton, The Song of the Lark, 1884

Le Chant de l’Alouette(The Song of the Lark), 1884

Gaurdian of the Turkeys

Gardeuse de Dindons(The Guardian of the Turkeys), 1864

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Mère Nourrir son Bébé(Mother Nursing Her Baby), 1863

Breton, Last Flowers, 1890

Dernières Fleurs(Last Flowers), 1890

It is Breton’s conciseness and simplicity which imbue the rural woman’s mundane experience with value and honesty, even as his romantic light and the warmth and softness of his color elevate her to a level of nobility that approaches the sacred. This celebration of common humanity was extremely attractive at a time when kingdoms were being replaced by democracies and is still quite striking today. If we accept Marie Shear’s definition of feminism as “the radical notion that women are people,” Jules Breton can even be called a feminist painter. What a profound ally we can find in his great talent and meticulous attention!

 

 

 

 

Picturing Healing Energy: Paintings by Agnes Lawrence Pelton

I’ve recently returned to painting and, searching for inspiration, ran across Agnes Pelton’s extraordinary transcendental paintings, images full of energy balanced with a cool serenity.  She has quickly become one of my favorite painters.

Pelton, Resurgence

Resurgence

Agnes Lawrence Pelton was born in 1881 to American parents, William and Florence Pelton, in Stuttgart, Germany. She spent her early childhood in Europe before moving to Brooklyn with her mother when she was seven. Florence Pelton ran The Pelton School of Music out of their home and kept food on the table by teaching piano, as well as German and French. William Pelton overdosed on morphine at his brother’s home in Louisiana when his daughter was nine.

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Awakening: Memory of Father, 1943

Agnes Pelton graduated from the Pratt Institute in 1900, continuing her study of painting with Arthur Wesley Dow, who also taught Georgia O’Keeffe. His emphasis on structure, imagination and non-naturalistic color deeply affected both women. Pelton referred to her early works as “imaginative paintings“, “moods of nature symbolically expressed” that exhibited humanity in harmony with nature and experimented with natural light. She often dressed in flowing gowns with flowers twisted into her hair and set up her studio in Greenwich Village, a hotbed for political radicals and avant-garde artists.

Pelton, Vine Wood, 1913

Vine Wood, 1910

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West Wind, 1915

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Room Decoration in Purple and Gray, 1917

In 1919, Pelton made a visit to Taos, New Mexico, as a guest of the colorful Mabel Dodge Luhan, who built the image and brand of “Southwestern Modernist Art” by inviting artists to her home and promoting their work. Here Pelton painted realistic portraits and romantic desert landscapes. These paintings honed her technique and sold and showed well, but her true calling was to paint inner visions rather than realistic representational scenes. Enchanted by the desert but, most likely, uncomfortable with fitting in to a commercial, mainstream artistic movement, especially one so aggressively shepherded by a personality like Luhan, she returned to New York to be near her mother. After Florence died in 1920, Pelton took up residence in a historic windmill on Long Island, seeking solitude and deeper abstraction, still heavily influenced by nature. It was here in the winter of 1926 that her first introspective, abstract paintings were born. She also traveled heavily, feeling herself to be a bit of a nomad. In 1932, the windmill was sold. Homeless at the age of 50, Pelton decided to travel across the country to Cathedral City, California, intending on a short stay. She would live out the rest of her life in the California desert.

Pelton, California Landscape near Pasadena

California Landscape near Pasadena, 1930

Pelton, Smoke Tree

Early Morning in the Wash, 1936

The vibration of this light, the spaciousness of these skies enthralled me. I knew there was a spirit in nature as in everything else, but here in the desert it was an especially bright spirit. 

Pelton, Star Grazer

Star Gazer, 1929

Pelton, The Voice

The Voice, 1930

Pelton, Untitled, 1931

Untitled, 1931

Pelton, Sea Change

Sea Change, 1931

Pelton, Messengers

Messengers, 1932

Pelton, Winter

Winter, 1933

In 1938, a group of artists based in Taos calling themselves the Transcendental Painting Group contacted Pelton. They were inspired and excited by her work and wondered if she would become their first president, sort of a patron saint for spiritual abstract painting. She accepted, and for five years she had an artistic community. The Transcendental Painters sought “to carry painting beyond the appearance of the physical world, through new concepts of space, color, light and design, to imaginative realms that are idealistic and spiritual.” The group broke up in 1943 as World War II made life difficult for everyone. Pelton’s work became more personal and abstract, and she receded not only from the art world, but from society in general. She had no interest in promoting her art, and died largely forgotten in 1961 at the age of eighty. Recently, her work has been rediscovered and promoted. I am very excited about a traveling exhibition originating at the Phoenix Museum of Art this spring called Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist. It will tour to the Whitney Museum in New York City, The New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe and to the Palm Springs Art Museum. I’d like to see it, wouldn’t you?

Pelton, Future, 1943

Future, 1941

 

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The Blest, 1941

Pelton, Prelude

Prelude, 1943

Pelton, Passion Flower, 1945

Passion Flower, 1945

What I love so much about Pelton’s painting is its serene luminosity. Her light is powerful and energetic but remains benevolent and nurturing. She had a profound interest in spirituality and in finding common ground with other cultures. Heavily influenced by numerology, spiritualism and yoga, her work lies at the beginning of what would become the New Age Movement There is something very feminine and abundant about the portrayal of her inner world. At a time when many modernist painters were paring things down to straight lines and redactive images, her work is refreshing in its roundness and expressivity. Organized and elegant, she never overwhelms the eye, although she has a lively sense of color. World War II must have been a great challenge, yet she remains strong and hopeful in her painting, as if presenting a vision of healthy humanity undimmed despite pain and difficulty. What a refreshing vision for any age!

Pelton, Ligh Center, 1961

Light Center, 1961

 

 

 

 

Synkronciti’s Faerie House Gallery

On the last Saturday of March Synkroniciti had a small gathering to build faerie houses. It was cathartic and fun. We had many folks express interest who were unable to make it, so we are going to build homes for the little people again on June 15th.

Shawntil, Kelly and I started working in the backyard next to the garden, but the weather turned suddenly cold, unusual for Houston at the end of March. We moved inside and were grateful for the warmth and the ease in using Shawntil’s hot glue gun, which proved very useful this time around. We enjoyed getting to know one another as we shared and created.

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Faerie Throne 

Kelly made a Faerie Throne! A seedling pot covered in moss on top of a corkscrew shaped shell, with an elegant back and seat skirt from potpourri stuff and a seat of sea glass. This is supported by a tripod of stiff reeds. Fit for a Faerie King or Queen!

 

 

Shotgun Shell House

My house is a low profile shotgun house (that is a form of house once popular in the south, so-called because, if both doors are open, you could shoot in the front door and out the back). It is made up of two seedling pots under a bit of palm leaf with a faux moss floor. It is crowned with feathers, purple raffia, pine cones and fronds, potpourri bits, rocks, glass beads inside of burr oak caps, and a sweetgum seed pod that I picked up outside of Houston Grand Opera on my way to rehearsal. There is a shell, two purple leaves and bit of pine cone between the front door and the back door on the side. The standing flowers are dried from the live bouquet we had at the last Synkroniciti gathering back in February. I love making connections between different parts of my life.

 

 

Branch House

Shawntil’s house was constructed from some strong twiggy branches put together with hot glue and decorated with natural and manmade items. Note the orange highlights. Someone had gotten a little excited with the orange spray paint marking a trail, inadvertently painting leaves and plant matter. Shawntil’s eye picked these items out while she was traveling and she took the time to set them aside for our construction project. There is also a lovely sea glass window, some arresting moss and a small pine cone from somewhere in the four corners region. So many fine details and a beautiful color scheme!

 

 

Our next event will be Poetry in Motion on April 27. We will be responding to poetry with movement. Come out and read some of your favorite poems!

 

 

 

My Feathered Friends: Party Shoes and Nesting Shoes

Turning old shoes into pieces of art sounded like fun; I had no idea it would also be therapeutic. Last weekend’s Walk in My Shoes Soirée saw the debut of my Party Shoes and Nesting Shoes, two pairs of my old shoes converted into art objects. The process made me reflect on my life… from the costume jewelry of my childhood to the nests that symbolize new dreams that I have for my life and art. It was a wonderful project and I felt lighter, happier for doing it. I would love to repurpose old shoes as keepsakes for others.

Party Shoes

I turned a pair of high heels that had become excruciatingly uncomfortable over time into Party Shoes. I like to think of them as the drag queens of the repurposed shoe world, beautiful and flashy with glitter, flowers, feathers and ribbon. They were plain black pumps to start off, with a little velvety section over the top of the foot and a simple black bow. I finger painted them with acrylic glitter paint, one in green and silver, the other in green and blue, and stuffed them with glittery fabric flowers. I brushed some silver paint on to add a little more definition in some places. Originally I planned to fill the shoes with beaded necklaces, but the result did not please my eye, so, after a trip to Michael’s craft store, I went down a different path.

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At this point the designs diverged much more. Blue and green was stuffed with a bit of non-descript fabric to keep the toe area plump. This fabric was covered over with a lustrous blue ribbon which loops its way over and around the shoe before forming a celebratory bow above it, as well as a matching blue feather boa that envelops most of the back portion of the shoe and cascades down from the heel. I intended to put a piece of metal in the shape of two joined leaves which had come off of one of my favorite hair clips many years ago across the toes, but the leaves came apart by accident. One leaf remains on the front toe while the other is fixed on one side of the heel, helping to hold the boa onto the shoe. I placed a clear glass bead, the kind you might use in bulk to fill a vase, like a droplet on the toe-leaf, where it looks like a bit of dew. Absolutely fabulous!

As for green and silver, she was stuffed with a piece of purple shantung. A scintillating stripe of gold glitter ribbon anchors itself from the heel and holds the design together. I placed a section of a rhinestone necklace, the kind of costume jewelry my grandmother would bring out for me to play with when I was small,  around the gentle curve above the toe bed, placing a clear pink glass bead on either side for a neater, more finished look. A spray of feathers juts up from the back of the heel, sticking straight up with pride, and a gold ribbon reminiscent of a gilt spider web drapes itself over the shoe. Unable to make it stick with glue, I used a pair of sparkly earrings to pin it on either side and threw in three other pairs  to add a little more bling. This shoe is a celebration of all of those gaudy baubles we loved in childhood–the ones society tells us to put away if we want to be taken seriously. Society be damned! We need the whimsical and the kitschy in our lives.

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Nesting Shoes

The Nesting Shoes have quite a different mood. These winged boots are about the collaboration between earth (reality)  and sky (imagination) to provide for the nurturing of a baby dream. That dream could be anything: a project, an artwork, a vocation, a career, or even an actual baby. These shoes have an artistic, self expressive side as well as a practical one. They are mama shoes.

I took a pair of grey boots that had never fit properly…the arch is in the wrong place for my foot. I bought them years ago, along with a matching pair in brown. In denial, I hung on to them, occasionally wearing them, as if they would magically fit someday. I found a much better use for them.

 

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First, I cut away most of the upper portion of the shoe that surrounded the ankle. I left a thin strip on either side, like an ear, to support the wings that would be introduced later. I stuffed the shoes with raffia, one in a dark color and one in a straw color. Into the darker one I placed a large straw colored bead, careful to hide its hollowness. I glued somber colored mosses around the nest and tied a necklace with a spectacular plastic pendant around the opening, knotting it into a bow in the back so that the pendant would hang down above the toe. Black and reddish brown acrylic paint was added in whorls and stripes to accentuate the shape of the shoe and make it feel more natural, less mass-produced. Finally, sprays of peacock and other feathers were added over and under the “ears” to create the illusion of wings. She stands firm on earth, but the glory of her feathers declares that she is ready to fly away if need be.

 

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The other boot was the most difficult of all the shoes to make. It took hours for the tacky glue to dry on one section so that I could move her to glue down the next section. I can’t count the times things had to be reattached. I was worried she wouldn’t be done in time, but she was, and she was everybody’s favorite.

 

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I tied together three small speckled beads on a piece of raffia and placed them in the nest. I knew from an earlier project that these beads make the best eggs. A piece of rough ribbon, something like pieces of thin twine laid next to each other to make a thick strip and painted across with white stripes, was glued around the nest opening. I  cut a matching pair of wings from a cardboard mailer and glued them to the shoe’s “ears”. Brushing on yellow and black acrylic paint, I made them into butterfly wings. This would have been easier to do before I had attached them, but I hadn’t had the idea yet. I then began to attach bright green and neutral moss, as well as some delightful bark lichen and seed pods from sweet gum trees which I had picked up on walks. The seashells and glass beads which peer out from below the moss proved the hardest to secure. I love the encrustation of different objects, especially the whorl of a shell attached to one side of the heel. This shell took so many attempts before the glue finally stuck, and it is also one of the elements that keeps the left wing from falling off (if you try, you can also find a bit of twine that helps do the job). Working with so many items of varying weight was a huge challenge, but the “faerie” Nesting shoe came together beautifully. She is heavy on the earth, but graceful and delicate as well, with her fragile butterfly wings and brilliant bright colors. If the first nesting boot were autumn, this one is certainly spring.

Hmmm… that leaves winter and summer for the brown boots, doesn’t it?

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From My Garden: Twenty Camellias in Haiku

Last spring I planted camellias in our front flowerbeds, not fully appreciating what a blessing I was giving myself. My husband and I worked the soil, adding amendments to create the acidity needed for the new camellias and azaleas. We went to Maas Nursery, the best place in the Houston area to get camellias, and purchased one Royal Velvet (deep red), one Purple Dawn (purplish pink) and a variety I had never heard of before, Sadaharu Oh (pink and white) named after a baseball player. The Royal Velvet has opened three glorious blooms so far, the Purple Dawn is a week from blooming  for the first time, but the Sadaharu Oh has proved unexpectedly prolific. Eighteen blooms have come and gone over the past month and it shows no sign of slowing down. Every time I tried to count the buds I would lose track somewhere between sixty and seventy.

I have been battling a respiratory infection this winter and without the joy my camellias have brought I don’t know how I would have made it through. But there is something about the fleeting nature of the camellia flower that makes one think of mortality and the beauty of life anyway.

These photos were taken in my garden and in my home and inspired the camellia theme for the week. In turn, I was inspired by the haikus of Matsuo Bashō and decided to try my hand at haikus. Staying traditional by keeping the 5-7-5 syllable count in three lines, I also tried to keep a sense of the jarring, unexpected nature of the content. I don’t know how successful I was, but the enjoyment I received from the mental exercise was well worth the time spent. I hope you will love them.

 

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a bowl of petals

this fierce corolla looks up

to contain the sun

 

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a pink and white bloom

adorns the glossy green leaves

crowned by threads of light

 

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a bee drinks deeply

ensconced in choice filaments

briefly imprisoned

 

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 the bee roaming freely

high on nectar among petals

is distinctly small

 

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the waxy flower

incapable of flying

makes the bee her slave

 

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in the flower’s bell

a bee hangs like a clapper

that will never ring

 

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after winter rain

shining with damp radiance

blooms have not fallen

 

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a fragile wax bloom

pours out its captured water

cup overflowing

 

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flower petals moist

textured like a infant’s skin

lasting only days

 

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in winter’s darkness

the camellia flowers

bring back the sunlight

 

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blossom beneath leaves

out of reach of wind and rain

afraid of falling

 

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a fallen flower

vibrant colors bathed in tears

is already dead

 

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cradled on pine straw

the flower’s lifeless body

collects dewy tears

 

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like a fallen star

gracing my simple table

bringing nature home

 

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remaining lovely

in a dish splashed with water

bloom cut off from life

 

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like a frilly dress

layers exposed for all eyes

she remains empty

 

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moisture is fickle

too much and the bloom will rot

too little she wilts

 

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each bloom so unique

drops in her time from the plant

nature is wasteful

 

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a fleeting flower

dropping helplessly to earth

evokes our own death

 

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a flower lingers

uncoupled from life and dead

may we do the same

 

Patterns of Connection: The Land Art of Dietmar Voorwold

Why should modern humanity regain and hold on to its connection with nature at a time when technology seems omnipresent?

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AmWeg207 © Dietmar Voorwold

I have always loved making things: textures and patterns create a sense of calmness for me. In my early years I made a texture book into which I glued pieces of fabric. I would spend hours rubbing my hands over the small swatches. Geometric patterns, fuzzy fake furs, textured weaves… they were all delightful. I think I must have worn that book out at some point, but I never lost my love for fabrics, texures, patterns and colors. This love would resurface from time to time. A few years later in grade school I would get in trouble for filling my desk with pretty rocks from the playground.

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AmMeer71 © Dietmar Voorwold

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AmWeg97 © Dietmar Voorwold

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AmMeer430 © Dietmar Voorwold

These creations by German land-artist Dietmar Voorwold take me back to my childhood. Trained as a photographer and graphic designer in Dusseldorf, Voorwold returned to school later to study Art Therapy at the Institute for Humanistic Psychology (IHP) in Eschweiler, Germany. For several years, he spent time working with children, adults, and people with special needs in educational and therapeutic institutions in Germany, Holland and Great Britain, focusing on “self-expression, joy and inspiration.” He found great satisfaction and collaborative potential in making patterns from stones, leaves and other natural materials. In 2008 he moved to Scotland and began to concentrate on making temporary outdoor installations.

Nature is the perfect stage and canvas for the beauty and lightness that I like to express. –Dietmar Voorwold

Land art, the arrangement of collected natural materials into patterns and forms is increasingly popular. In a world that seems so technological and so regimented, it becomes more and more important that we cultivate the simple side of ourselves, that we recognize who we are as part of nature. Otherwise, it is simply too easy to get lost on the sea of social media, to become ungrounded and feel that we are being carried away on the current. Nature is far more difficult to fake than our daily online lives and it offers us a tactile, physical relationship that we cannot replace with virtual reality. If we are clever, we can find ways of using technology to help us record and memorialize those moments of synchronicity and meaning that are the fruits of that relationship.

 

 

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AmMeer578 © Dietmar Voorwold

Thankfully we have rebellious artists like Dietmar Voorwold to take us down the paths less traveled to those places where everything connects. The result is never quite what we expect, and that is the allure and magic that keeps us interested in the world around us. Call it enchantment, call it synchronicity, but do not let it pass from our existence.

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AmWeg193 © Dietmar Voorwold

All images used in accordance with fair use policy for educational purposes. Please spend some time on Mr. Voorwold’s website, where you may purchase prints of his luscious work.

 

 

Connecting Flourishes: Norway By Way of South Dakota

In Rapid City, South Dakota, USA, on the edge of the Black Hills, in a peaceful green space on the older side of town, there stands a delightfully unexpected structure: a carved wooden church in medieval style called the Chapel in the Hills. It is in fact a replica of the Borgund Church, a Stavkirke (Stave church) built in the late 1100s, which stands in Laerdal, Norway. So what, you may wonder, is it doing here?

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Well, in the 1960s South Dakota native Dr. Harry Gregerson, the creator and preacher of the Lutheran Vespers Radio Hour, was looking for a way to expand his ministry and make something more tangible than a radio broadcast. He decided to build a structure near the Black Hills that could give vacationers a place of pilgrimage and worship. In choosing to make a copy of the Borgund church, he created a link to the cultural roots of the Norwegian Lutherans who settled in South Dakota. The Norwegian Department of Antiquities sent the blueprints of the church and a local construction company spearheaded the effort. The wood carvings were a joint project between the Norwegian master carver Erik Fridstrøm and Helge Christiansen of Rapid City. These fantastic flourishes inspire awe and yet seem quite at home here. Rapid City is right next door, and yet the area recedes into the hills, feeling quite remote and peaceful, an excellent place to meditate. There is also a small Norwegian museum and a stabbur, a small grass-roofed storehouse, that serves as a visitor center. The stabbur was built in Norway, shipped to Rapid City in pieces, and rebuilt here.

 

 

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The flourishes on, in and about the church weave together Christianity with pre-Christian Norwegian symbols. The continuity between the Christian and naturalistic symbolism is both beautiful and striking. It can be interpreted as a refreshing acknowledgement that the same God might choose different ways to speak to different peoples. The first congregants of the Borgund church would have been converted Vikings, with minds shaped by Norse myths and naturalistic rituals.

I: Runestones

Runestones are stones decorated with naturalistic motifs. The Vikings and the Celts were masters at making runestones; many of their descendants Christianized the art form so they could keep their artistic language. These two feature serpents and dragons, symbols of chaotic forces which shape time and nature, ambivalent forces which both destroy and build up. The rectangular, seated runestone on the left shows that time and Creation have been forever marked by the Cross. In the crucifixion, life has also been destroyed and rebuilt. Common themes were important to encourage conversion and promote understanding.

 

 II: Doorways

The entire church is circled by an antechamber/corridor. Weapons were to be dropped in this space and were not allowed in the house of worship. In case you think the Viking converts were progressive, you should know that men and women entered through different doorways and did not associate with each other in the church building. Children entered with the women until the young boys came of age. Young men were then allowed to use the men’s doorway inside the front entrance.

The men’s entrance with intricate carving. More dragons and serpents.

The women’s entrance on the side of the church, featuring carvings of lionesses, a rather ferocious symbol of femininity. Note the lioness faces at the bottom of the pilasters. I imagine these Viking ladies were not wallflowers.

One of the outside doors features a metal ring. In medieval Borgund, any criminal who was touching this ring could not be apprehended by authorities. It was apparently not unheard of for such people to starve to death on the steps of the church, covered in their own excrement.

Inside the church, there is a plain door with no adornments next to a sliding window that opens into the corridor. This was a station for people with leprosy, so that they could take Communion without entering the church proper.

III: A Ship of a Different Kind

The church interior is fashioned as an upside down Viking ship, cleverly using the most familiar of forms, but also turning it on its head. Look at those ominous faces carved on the high posts!

The altar and chancel area stand out for their simplicity. The pan fixed in the front served as a baptismal font.

IV: There Be Dragons

High atop the church building there are four dragons, fashioned like those that would have been at the prow of a Viking ship. In addition to serving practically as aids to drainage, they functioned much like gargoyles, impressing people and “chasing away devils”. The detail and the care that goes into each shingle, each cross, each flourish is absolutely marvelous.

I happened to catch a squirrel sunning himself on the high branches, mimicking the dragons astride the church. Nature seems playfully at peace with this Stavekirke from another land. On another day, in another post, I may take you on the walkway that leads back toward the hills, where the rabbits feed lazily, and the forest is peopled with life-sized stone figures that range from moving to creepy. But for today this magnificent building is more than enough.

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All images by Katherine McDaniel, 2015

 

 

 

 

 

A Testament to Motion: The Art of Toots Zynsky

Have you ever created something that made you feel more alive? Amazing things can happen when we follow our passion.

 

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Delizioso, Image © Dane Gallery

 

Mary Ann Toots Zynsky, known as Toots, decided as a pre-teen that she was meant to be an artist, beginning her creative life as a painter and sculptor. She attended the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), which she had been told was the best of the best. And yet, nothing really sparked her interest; everything felt stilted and quiet. In fact, she planned to leave the school at the end of her Freshman year in order to pursue studies leading toward medical school. One day she grabbed a map and decided she would visit each department, perhaps hoping for a reason to stay. Everything changed as she walked down a hallway to a room that had been deliberately placed far from the main studios. Here, loud music played and hot glass swirled in the air, manipulated by artists that moved together to make colorful shapes that solidified into glass. I’m sure the music was loud and the atmosphere somewhat wild… it was 1970 after all…but the voice inside of her must have spoken with a voice to match. The next week, after classes ended, the glass studio, which had recently gained independence from the ceramics department, opened its doors to anyone who was interested. Toots Zynsky did not miss her opportunity.

Video via Corning Museum of Glass on YouTube

It is fascinating to note that Toots was not drawn so much to the final product as she was mesmerized by the process. It was the music reverberating in the space, the concept of collaboration as a kind of dance, the roar of the furnace, the hot liquid glass in motion and the counterpoint of color that quickened her pulse. When art comes from this kind of place, the final form it takes is secondary. It also didn’t hurt that this was a new medium for art and there were few rules to be broken. It was an exciting time to work with glass. On top of that, she earned her BFA working under the guidance of Dale Chihuly, who remains one of the biggest names in glass art worldwide.

In the early 1970s, along with Chihuly and some fellow RISD graduates, Toots was part of the founding team of the Pilchuck Glass School in Washington state. Her work was groundbreaking: experimental installations featuring slumped plate glass and forays into video and performance art in collaboration with artist Buster Simpson. Finding new and interesting possibilities, she wasn’t sure she wanted to stay with glass. She returned to the east coast to pursue new projects in new media.

“I started wondering what I was doing with glass and why. There were other materials and ideas that fascinated me, and I started working with cloth, light, wire, and barbed wire. I was interested in barbed wire because it’s such a powerful symbol of the failure of humanity— that we had to come up with this material to keep each other apart.”

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AWOL, 1982 © Toots Zynsky

In 1980, Toots became assistant director and head of the hot shop at the New York Experimental Glass Workshop in New York City, now UrbanGlass. Here she pioneered works that combined glass with barbed wire, pulling her interests together. She began to work with nets made from heavy glass threads which she dubbed filet de verre. These threads were fused and shaped inside of a kiln. Her first piece made entirely from filet de verre was Clipped Grass (1982). It is a beautiful, humble work of realism, glass fashioned into the image of a nest made from grass clippings. This simple piece was the precursor to the fanciful colored forms which would become Toots’ signature work.

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Clipped Grass (1982),  Image © The Corning Museum of Glass

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Spring Grass (1983),  Image © Yale University Art Gallery

In the early days, she had to employ teams of assistants to pull the glass into threads using an old Venetian method. This took time and resulted in unevenness. There was also a limit to the length of thread that could be produced. When Mathijs Van Manen, an inventor who had also worked with special effects for film and television, came to New York from Amsterdam to check out her work, he was amazed at what she was doing and dumbfounded at how she was doing it. Within 24 hours, he rigged a machine to turn rods of glass into threads. Toots took a trip to Europe to collaborate further on the design of this machine and stayed on the continent for 16 years. Together, she and Van Manen produced a series of kilns which she still uses in her work, although these instruments now incorporate cutting edge software and electronics. She also has special heat resistant gloves that allow her to reach into the kiln and twist the work into shape. These are the product of a desperate moment in Italy when, showing her technique to Italian craftsmen, she plunged her hands into a kiln to rescue a piece that was going awry.

“The architects were so curious and I was so nervous and the piece just wasn’t going right. All of a sudden, I reached into the kiln, grabbed the vessel, and gave it a big squeeze. Finally, I had the form that I wanted! And I thought, Why didn’t I think of this before? I was fed up with the piece, so I tried something different because I had nothing to lose.

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Contrappunto, 2015 Image © Habatat Galleries

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Davvero, 2014 © Habatat Galleries

There is more to her work than technique, innovation and boldness. There is a great deal of sensitivity. As a synesthete, Toots relates sound to color. The rhythms of music are translated into patterns of colored glass that are like frozen portraits of sound.

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Pajaritos en la Cabeza and Cabellos de Angel (“Tierra del Fuego” Series), 1988 © Toots Zynsky

 

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Sottacqua, 2005 Image © Hooks-Epstein Galleries

After going through a period of loss in which she no longer felt like dancing, or even moving or listening to music, she began to create darker pieces with fewer colors and more shading, explorations not of music rhythms, but of the feelings she had for people she had lost. What an honor to be remembered in such a personal way by such a great artist!

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Avvincente (left), Avviluppare (center), Avvio (right)
2010 © Toots Zynsky

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Rondine, Image © Echt Gallery

Toots Zynsky continues to make beautiful things that fill a need in her life and delight others. She has collaborated on costume and scenic design for theatrical works and continues to explore what glass can express. Please check out more of her work on her website.

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Riposo, Image © Echt Gallery