Last Sunday, synkroniciti held its first public event, an Open Mic featuring works that explored beginnings. What an inspiring experience!
As the afternoon darkened into an intense storm, listeners and performers made their way to my home. Although the weather kept some from making it, we had plenty of art to share and a circle of twelve open minds and hearts that made the soiree a true joy. Our number was actually thirteen if you count Lisa Sasabuki, our cat, who was intent on being a proper hostess. I am so proud to report such an auspicious beginning!
We began by mingling over snacks and drinks, waiting for those out in the storm to arrive. It was soon apparent that we had attracted a circle of free thinking folks who are interested in experiencing things that aren’t served up on television or packaged for us by popular culture. Our conversation grew into a discussion of art, aesthetics and creativity. Then time came to see what we had to share.
As the storm outside subsided, Ofelia Adame began the evening with a meditation on the elements, invoking earth, wind, fire, and air to bless our journey together. This dovetailed very nicely into the presentation of my first painting, Germination. This piece is about the need for fire to germinate seeds and the cycle of chaos and order inherent in the creative process. It was wonderful to explain the picture and then receive impressions from the group. As we were more interested in finding meaning than critiquing execution, the environment was electric with revelation and positivity. I will never forget the moment in which several people pointed out that the burning tree trunk in the center of Germination can also be interpreted as a phoenix, which encapsulates the meaning of the entire work. Somehow I was not fully conscious of it.
Laura Bourdo seized upon the theme of chaos as central to her contribution, The Seagull’s Call, excerpted from a novel that is, as of yet, nameless. This was a stunning and heartbreaking read depicting a family struggling with mental illness. Full of moments of bright humor and crushing realization, it could have moved stone. The psychological depth of the writing was further enhanced by the naturalness and sincerity of Laura’s recitation, which bristled with intention and belied an excellent sense of pace and structure. She’s an artist of many dimensions, as you can see at her website, which focuses on her visual art.
America McDaniel shared an illustration of Rapunzel gazing longingly from her tower window, waiting for life to begin. This lovely pencil sketch is complex, juxtaposing romantic longing, revealed in her wistful glance and luxurious hair, with determination, revealed in the strong set of her arm as she leans toward the window. It is this arm with which America began drawing. It remains the anchor of the piece, showing the determination and capability that make Rapunzel different from other fairy tale girls. While they are rescued by male prowess or supernatural intervention, she designs her own escape.
Ofelia returned with a poem entitled Anticipation, which explores the feelings and thoughts a performer experiences on opening night. The fear of the unknown, the knowledge that nothing is completely as we have envisioned it and the clicking into place of practiced elements to make something new and transformative are key parts of any creative process, including life itself. We could all find threads in Ofelia’s big hearted and exuberant poem that applied to our own experience.
Speaking of big hearted and exuberant, that brings us to a dramatic reading by Jane and David Lowy from Jane’s Victorian period novel, Wobbly Barstool, inspired by the work of Charles Dickens. The novel chronicles the adventures of Wobbly, a young fellow trying to better himself in order to attract the attentions of Prunella, a socialite a little older and classier than himself. This reading was the end of a chapter entitled Wobbly Falls into an Awareness of the Drawbacks of Itinerant Employment. It is a hilarious recounting of the near seduction of Wobbly by an older, unhappily married woman who promises the gullible young man experience. It features an angry husband and an ill treated goat, both of which David made completely unforgettable. Jane supplied each of us with a signed copy of the novel, which I can’t wait to read and write about here on the blog! Please check out Jane’s website.
In closing, I read Cloud, a poem about the fear and excitement of realizing a new idea, here symbolized by a cloud. Even as the cloud seems about to fizzle, it finds an open field in someone else and, miracle of miracles, it thickens and produces rain. This returned us rather neatly to our stormy world. No one was in a hurry to leave, which confirmed the night a success in my mind. I couldn’t have hoped for a better first experience.
A big thank you to Laura, America, Ofelia, Jane and David; to Robert and Trudi for not only being great listeners, but for bringing in top notch performing talent; to my brother-in-law, Eric, for being a part of our circle and for encouraging my niece, America, to present with such poise and talent; to Orion for being such an engaging and well spoken listener; to Ofelia and Charles for their help in organizing and putting together food; and most of all, to Neil who busted his tail helping get the house ready and still had the energy to be a part of everything. The experience was akin to finding my own tribe and I am so grateful.
Our next Open Mic adventure will happen in November. Any creative person is welcome to come and share their process and their creations at our Open Mics. We do ask that the material be the original work of the artist. If you live or work near Houston, Texas and would like to be a part of one of these adventures, either as a performer/creator or listener, please contact us.
Creativity can help us through uncomfortable emotions and thoughts. What happens when these personal visions strike a nerve with others?
Mary Engelbreit is a children’s book illustrator and author from St. Louis, MO, USA, who started her career as a designer of greeting cards. Her delightful books of brain teasers, projects and recipes for kids, her fairytales and seasonal storybooks and her collections of poetry and scripture have created quite a following and earned her a reputation as the Norman Rockwell of our time. Her work is known for its gentle and cheerful nature, so one might be surprised to hear Engelbreit’s name mentioned in connection with controversy.
A few days ago, Engelbreit posted a new work to Facebook. In the USA was inspired by the killing of teenager Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, a suburb of her hometown, and the volatile situation that has resulted from it. All proceeds from the work are to go to Brown’s Memorial Fund. Comments were largely positive, but some people felt the need to attack. From those who felt she was being un-American, to those who accused her of making profit from tragedy, to those who could not believe that she was siding with a criminal and giving money to his undeserving family, things got very ugly. So ugly in fact, that Facebook stepped in and pulled In the USA from her wall because it had been deemed offensive (they did later reinstate the post). So what does this earth shaking, saber rattling piece of art look like?
Wait, what? This sweet, chubby-cheeked mother and child is the subject of viperous rants?
Perhaps critics are vitriolic because they expect an author that writes for impressionable children to stay out of the way and to keep her subject matter light. Engelbreit has said that she uses her art to work through things that bother her, but doesn’t release most of those personal pieces to the public. This time she must have felt that she could do something to help the situation by voicing her empathy. It should be noted that Engelbreit lost a son, Evan, in 2000, when he was shot and killed at the age of nineteen. Seeing Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, on television brought back memories of a terrible time in her own life.
I hope we can all agree that the state of affairs in Ferguson challenges adults to explain the realities of violence and racism to children and young people. I’d venture to say that most people reading this blog have never had to put their hands in the air and ask not to be shot, but it can and does happen in the United States, especially for minorities and for those who don’t have the respect that money seems to buy. It is terrifying to realize how easy it is to revert to fear and suspicion of those different from us and it certainly isn’t un-American to wonder how we can approach equality and safety for everyone. Silence is perhaps the worst approach, as it encourages those who follow us to avert their eyes and turn off their empathy. We are already too far down that road.
Art often hits us at a more visceral level than words, speaking directly to the inmost parts of ourselves, places that don’t respond to reason and argument, but to symbols. In addition to breaking the silence and shattering the illusion that everything is fine, there are connotations in In The USA that are extremely provocative. The choice of mother and son calls up images of the Madonna and Child, a subject for countless artists for the past two thousand years. Depictions of Mother Mary holding Jesus are woven throughout Western history, fusing with the memories we have of our own mothers. Adding to the unique and sacred nature of the bond between mother and child, they tell of a God who could have approached humanity in fear and retribution but chose instead to empathize and become like us. Whether or not an individual believes in such a God the archetype remains valid– the one who makes things better for everyone else by dying. To make things more intense, this mother is crying and the child has his hands up in a gesture that isn’t so different from the crucifixion. These are things we might expect from a Stabat Mater or Pietà, a depiction of Christ’s death. Engelfreit has, intentionally or not, invoked two incredibly powerful archetypes, the grieving Mother and the dying Savior.
In the USA is a brave piece, as is any artwork that tries to make sense of violence. It is exceptionally tidy and decent, but that doesn’t mitigate its impact. Part of the legacy of racism is that many of those who have practiced it will do anything to keep from the embarrassment of being exposed, often becoming adept at rationalizing and hiding it from themselves as well as others. Art like this calls that kind of behavior out. We may feel shame for what we have done or what we have not done. At that point, we can share our disgust and admit our mistakes or we can hit out in fear at anyone who makes us feel wrong. Fear often wins. But it doesn’t have to.
Want to know more?
You can purchase a print of In the USA here.
—Ida Rentoul Outhwaite
The questions asked in youth can lead us on journeys that last a lifetime. Sometimes persistence is rewarded with answers.
In the late 17th century there was a common belief that insects were beasts of the devil, spontaneously generated from mud. Few scholars understood the life cycle of the butterfly and insects were certainly not proper subject matter for study, especially for a young lady. Fortunately, curiosity is a powerful thing.
Maria Sibylla Merian was a scientist, botanical artist, engraver and illustrator, famous for her contributions to entomology, the study of insects. Born in 1647 in Frankfurt, her father was the influential Swiss engraver and publisher Matthäus Merian the Elder, who, unfortunately, died before Maria reached the age of four. Her mother later married the painter Jacob Marrel, who taught his stepdaughter how to draw and paint and encouraged her passion. Because of the circumstances of her birth and youth, she was afforded opportunities for education and “eccentricity” that were not afforded to many people. As a teenager, she began to collect plants and insects which she would sketch and paint.
“I realized that other caterpillars produced beautiful butterflies or moths, and that silkworms did the same. This led me to collect all the caterpillars I could find in order to see how they changed.” —Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname
After her marriage to Marrel’s apprentice, Johann Graff, and the birth of her first child, Johanna, Merian moved to Nuremberg. There she schooled young unmarried women in the fashionable art of drawing, earning money and social standing while continuing her own painting and creating embroidery designs. As frustrating as it might have been to teach dilettantes, this also afforded her access to some of the finest gardens in Europe and a chance to build her reputation. She produced her first work, a book of floral illustrations titled Neues Blumenbuch, New Bloom Book, in 1675.
“In Holland, with much astonishment what beautiful animals came from the East and West Indies, I was blessed with having been able to look at both the expensive collection of Doctor Nicolaas Witsen, mayor of Amsterdam and director of the East Indies Society, and that of Mr. Jonas Witsen, secretary of Amsterdam. Moreover I also saw the collections of Mr. Fredericus Ruysch, doctor of medicine and professor of anatomy and botany, Mr. Livinus Vincent, and many other people. In these collections I had found innumerable other insects, but finally if here their origin and their reproduction is unknown, it begs the question as to how they transform, starting from caterpillars and chrysalises and so on. All this has, at the same time, led me to undertake a long dreamed of journey to Suriname.“–Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname
In 1699, at age 52, Merian was honored by the city of Amsterdam, where she had been residing, with a grant allowing her to travel to the South American Dutch Colony of Surinam with her youngest daughter to study the flora and fauna of the tropics. She jumped at the rare chance, beginning two years of field work, collecting specimens and sketching and painting what would become her greatest work, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname. One of the first scientists to make an expedition in order to observe animal behavior, she wrote down native names and uses for the plants and insects she encountered, many of which she was the first European to discover. She created classification systems for insects and documented their behavior and life cycles. An honest and iconoclastic presence, she also voiced her criticism of the treatment of natives and black slaves by the Dutch. Returning from Surinam out of fear of malaria in 1701, Merian published her volume in 1705. It is still recognized as one of the greatest works of entomology ever produced.
1936 was a memorable year: Hitler’s Germany hosted the Olympics in Berlin and broke the Treaty of Versailles by stationing troops in Rhineland; Italy occupied Ethiopia; Franco rose to power in Spain; China declared war on Japan; Hoover Dam, then known as Boulder Dam, was finished; The Green Hornet debuted on Detroit radio; Life Magazine was born; Shostakovich finished his Fourth Symphony but was unable to premiere it due to persecution by Stalin; the last Tasmanian Wolf (aka Tasmanian Tiger) died in captivity in Australia; Margaret Mitchell published her book, Gone with the Wind; and the hottest summer on record in the United States created temperatures over 110 degrees Fahrenheit in many states.
That same year, in an attempt to codify the mores of his culture, Hugh Morris penned an illustrated pamphlet entitled The Art of Kissing. Take a look at excerpts in this delightful article from Brain Pickings. Today it seems frightfully chauvinist, blatantly heterosexual and titillatingly prudish. Some may also find it more than a tad hilarious, although the line is narrow between amusement and offense when confronted with such cavalier ignorance (and extremely moldy prose). Treating the whole experience of kissing and courtship rather like a hunting trip in which care must be taken to approach the target properly, The Art of Kissing creates a certain camaraderie among men, but is decidedly unromantic from the female point of view. I’m not sure I would find the “vacuum kiss” appealing, especially described in this manner! Looking back on what seem to be the teen-age years of our culture makes one grateful for the present, despite the struggles that still face us.
Jon Klassen is known as a writer and illustrator of children’s books and as an animator. He has worked on films, such as Coraline and Kung Fu Panda, and directed the video for I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight by U2. As an illustrator he has won several awards, including the Governor General’s Award for English-language children’s illustration for Carolyn Stutson’s Cat’s Night Out and the 2013 Caldecott Medal for This Is Not My Hat, which he also wrote. His book I Want My Hat Back was among the New York Times 10 Best Illustrated Children’s Books for 2011, although it kicked up some controversy over its ending, in which a character (the bear) eats another character (the rabbit), an event which is not explicitly pictured in the illustration.
In the early 2000s, as a student in Sheridan College’s Classical Animation Program, Klassen teamed up with Dan Rodrigues, later an animator on Kid vs. Kat, to make An Eye for Annai, a charming and clever animated short about a one-eyed monster looking to replace his missing eye. The film is hand drawn and animated, with digital coloring and a mix of traditional and digital backgrounds. Klassen played the recorder to make most of the soundtrack and used a recording of the Jazz classic Jeepers Peepers to finish off the magic. Jeepers Peepers, where’d you get those eyes? Clever! The main tune is the children’s song Frère Jacques, but listeners will catch interpolations of the Sailor’s Hornpipe and the Imperial March from Star Wars. It is this impish whimsy that makes the video an instant classic, despite limited budget and resources. What an adorable little red monster! The fruit eating monkeys and the obnoxious peacocks are some of my favorites as well. Enjoy!
Video via ubak on YouTube.
Why do some people mistrust creativity, while others feel it leads them to deeper faith? Is creativity inseparable from identity?
To God belongs the East and the West. –- The Koran
Four master illustrators have been selected to complete a secret book for the Ottoman Sultan, a book which strays from the traditional elements of Islamic art to include illustrations influenced by the “Frankish” or western style. Elegant the gilder is now dead, his body rotting in the bottom of a well. The murderer is one of the other three, but which one? Will he murder again?
Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red takes place in the Istanbul of 1591. To me, unfamiliar with Istanbul and Islamic culture, it feels timeless. The genius of the book is that, by weaving together disparate elements: murder, political intrigue, love, family, art and religion, Pamuk emphasizes that East and West are different reflections of the same humanity. The drive to be an individual is a universal challenge, although the response to it is, by nature, extremely varied.
Each chapter of the novel is titled with the identity of the individual who narrates it and immerses us in their prejudices and beliefs. We begin with I am a Corpse, which presents us with the soul of Elegant Effendi, severed from his battered and bloody body and calling for justice. The chapters entitled I Will be Called a Murderer are narrated by the killer, who manages to give us a trickle of information about himself, but not enough to establish his identity until near the end of the book. The three illustrators each have chapters, but again, little is revealed by the killer, who, by the end, has grown attached to speaking in two different voices, to being a divided soul. There are other important characters who speak to us, including Enishte, the well traveled old man who is preparing the Sultan’s book, his beautiful widowed daughter, Shekure, and her suitor, Black. Perhaps the quirkiest are the chapters narrated by the illustrations themselves, voiced by a master storyteller at a dark cafe. They provide wealth of insight into Islamic culture, especially the conflict between art and religion, and hint at the danger looming in the form of a radical sect inspired by a fiery local preacher.
Islamic illustrators of the time painted in a particular style which resulted from an uneasy blending of ancient Persian and Islamic traditions. Subjects were depicted from above, from what they termed “God’s view” and were not placed in the exact center of the page because that would give them an importance that is reserved for God. Images were rendered in traditional fashion as codified by artists of the past. For example, horses were painted with as few strokes as possible, beginning from the front hoof, often with two legs extended forward and two legs reaching back, and all beautiful women were portrayed with a Chinese face. The use of perspective was unacceptable.
These pictures were not painted realistically by looking at nature, but from memory, in order to honor their image in the mind of God. Many famous artists of the time either became blind or blinded themselves, which enhanced the legend of their mastery. Individual style was considered weakness and signing your work was crass, even heretical. But times were changing. The works of western artists reached Istanbul, breaking all of the rules without a thought, since western art was completely unaware of these rules. Those with enough culture and means to look upon this foreign art recognized great beauty and power. Many interpreted this power as devilish and evil, others found in it a different, but valuable appreciation of God and Creation. Some, such as those of the radical sect depicted in My Name is Red, were and remain against any depiction of the human form, deeming it a challenge to the creativity of God. This exacerbated the conflict and threatened to wipe out the profession of illustration completely.
It seems anathema that anyone should become violent over artistic expression and seek to suppress it, but people do censor art and do become incensed over it. Perhaps we contribute to this situation ourselves when we belittle one art form in favor of another, or reject an artist’s work because they hold beliefs contrary to our own. Art has a way of exposing us: our fears, our pettiness, our flaws, and also our beauty.
Is there enough room on this earth for each one of us to be creative in a way which is true to ourselves and our beliefs without ridiculing and destroying the creativity or beliefs of others?
Beautiful art out of Urdu digests. These are cover illustrations for novels appearing in collections from Pakistan. Reblogged from usmanhashmi.