September 22, 2014

New Hooked Wool Drawings

2014 #14, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 19 x 20 in.

I was thinking "lines" while working on the studies for these new hooked wool drawings, so the only thing hooked in wool on these pieces are the lines. In #14, two painted shapes––yellow and blue––hold lines––blue and yellow––while an open rectangle can't quite contain the curved red line.

2014 #15,  hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 15 x 12 in.

Four lines of various warm hues cross a painted and unpainted surface.

2014 #16,  hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 3 panels each 15 x 6 in. 

A triptych of simple design: lines running across the three panels delineate rectangles of color and of bare linen; lines move within them. A centered horizontal line is accompanied by lines, curved and straight, leading toward it. I enjoyed the challenge of simplicity with these three drawings.

September 21, 2014

The End of the Summer Garden, and the Beginning of the Fall

Frost has come early this year, with two nights in the mid 20s. Usually it creeps in little by little, with at first a couple of light frosts with temperatures around 30º. Last year our first frost was on October 9th; this year a heavy frost came on September 15th, which is early but not unusual. The tomato plants are dead and removed from the garden, leaving some frosted tomatoes on the ground. I'll rake them up and put them on the compost pile.

No more zucchini either.

The corn plants have shriveled from the cold, the dried leaves making expressive gestures.

Sunflower heads hang heavy with seeds, a feast for small birds.

It is sad to say goodbye to the crops of summer, but the garden is far from finished. Now is the time for the vegetables that taste best after being frosted, even frozen. Brussels sprouts are one of the great treats of fall.... is kale, which gets sweeter with the cold. I've included brussels sprouts and, the wonderful, almost guilty pleasure, kale chips, in meals the past couple of nights.

When the weather cools, I switch from lettuce salads to cole slaw. Red cabbage is one of the prettiest plants in the garden.

I also love the structure of leeks, whose leaves grow in a stunning pattern, and may be based on the golden ratio, as in much of nature.

On the porch, protected from frosts, are my winter squashes. I love the switch from spring to summer to fall eating; each season has its delicious delights, making the changes welcome.

September 18, 2014

A New Textile: "Split Circle"

Split Circle, hand dyed wool on linen, 12 x 10 in.

I wanted to make a companion piece to Red Bars, below, so came up with this composition. They are both inspired by Russian Constructivism. The big decision that I had to make about the hooking of this piece was whether to hook a circular line around the split circle, or to hook the perpendicular lines to the edge, as I did below with the white/black diagonal. A line would have made a smoother circle, but I chose to have stepped changes in the edge; I'm still not sure it was the correct decision, but I kind of like it.

Red Bars, hand dyed wool on linen, 12 x 10 in.

Split Circle detail

You can see the way the horizontal and vertical hooked lines meet each other in this detail; it's like bumping up against zigzag walls. I did try counting loops to make it fairly even from side to side, but I pretty much failed at that. Luckily these hooked textiles have some charm in their irregularity.

September 17, 2014

"Found Memories": Still Lives

An old woman appears, walking slowly down a dark hallway, the only light the kerosene lantern she is holding. She places the lantern on a work table and the camera lingers quietly, lovingly, on the old cracked bowl with its painted flowers. When I saw the bowl, emerging from dark, an ordinary object that was treated with reverence, I knew I'd love this Brazilian film, Found Memories, the first feature by Julia Murat.

We see the old woman make bread before dawn, by lantern light. She then walks down the railroad tracks and turns into a street in the village, while singing gently. The tracks are unused, the street empty.

She arrives at a building that is beautiful in color and form and balance, even in its disrepair. Each camera shot is carefully composed, and each lasts long enough to allow us to appreciate what we are seeing. The woman, Madalena, takes her bread into the shop, where she and Antonio have a gentle argument about its display. Then they sit outdoors together having a coffee. The slow, deliberate pace makes us realize that these actions have settled into a routine; each day Antonio says "There's some rain on the way"; each day they argue about the quality of the coffee. 

At midday the town's ten inhabitants go to mass; here we see that all who remain are elderly. We are not told anything about the town, but it is clear that it is isolated and has fallen on hard times. From the NY Times review, I learned that it is a fictional town in northern Brazil.

Everyone has a meal together at the church, praying quietly before eating.

In the evening, Madalena writes a brief, poetic letter to her dead husband. They are more beautiful than you would expect from a rural woman. One reads:
My love, I'd like to keep our memory forever alive, so our love, in the future, doesn't suffer from the passing of time. We have to go beyond death, this cruel enemy, that didn't choose day or time. I kiss you tenderly, yours, Madalena. 
She then folds the letter carefully and places it in an envelope, which she addresses to her husband. She puts the envelope, along with many others, in a circular box.

The director shows us this round of events over two or three days, so that we see that they never differ. But then youth arrives in the person of a young woman, Rita, traveling in those parts; she asks Madalena to put her up for two or three days.

The two regard each other: the old woman with doubt, mistrust, uncertainty; the young woman with the confidence of youth.

As she opens long closed rooms in her house for Rita, Madalena discovers her husband's shirt draped over a chair; she smells it with love and memory. Here already is a small change caused by the visitor.

Rita is a photographer; she works with both modern digital equipment and with pinhole cameras made from large tin cans. When she walks around the village, we begin to see through her eyes; she notices the objects in Antonio's shop; the film presents them to us with their beauty, charm, and aging dignity. Rita likes the little town; she feels she was born at the wrong time. The photographs she takes with her pinhole cameras are romantic visions of ruins, and touching portraits of the village inhabitants, with whom she's begun to develop bonds of affection.

We see the two wary women become very fond of each other. Rita photographs Madalena's kitchen; Madalena asks Rita to touch the bread, because "you need to feel the timing of the dough with your hands".

Finally, Madalena allows Rita to take her portrait, and she appears as a beautiful ghost floating before a worn wall. Love and loss hover between life and death.

The light in this film is often so beautiful, whether sunlight cast on objects and wall, or the flickering light of kerosene lanterns. Toward the end of the film we see Rita in a bath; the room is bathed in light, her head in shadow. Is this a metaphor of baptism or of death? This quiet, slow, meditative film leaves us with love and beauty, but with no answers.

September 15, 2014

A New Painting: "Disk and Pipe"

Disk and Pipe, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 7 x 8 1/2 in.

When I began working on this painting I found the image very strange, almost disconcertingly so. There was something about that big staring black circle surrounded by a gray bent pipe that unsettled me; it seemed to allude to a figure. As I continued with it, I became more comfortable, and now it interests me: it seems to flipflop between humor and dead-seriousness, the serious part coming from the black and gray, the humor from the shapes.

Disk and Pipe detail

In the very center of the black disk is a tiny dot; it was in the source photo and I had to decide whether or not to include it. It's a seemingly small thing that to me had large effects in the painting. I kept it because it draws your eye into the center and makes you aware of the subtle shifts of color in the black, indicating a surface not totally flat.

Disk and Pipe detail

Another indication of not-flatness is the little flip of light at the bottom of the disk. I could have left that out, but I like the way it pops the edge upward, while the green form turns down and away, a push-pull bit of illusionism.

September 11, 2014

The Ordinary Transfigured

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Pipes and Drinking Pitcher, c. 1737
image ©2010 Musée du Louvre

An unadorned table holds a wooden box, a long pipe resting gently on its edge, a pitcher and several vessels. There is life in each object and in the paint Chardin used to represent them. I began thinking of Chardin, and other painters of "extravagant understatement", while reading the chapter "The Art of Gum-ball Machines" in Michael Kimmelman's wonderful book The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa.

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Still Life with Partridge and Pear, ca. 1748
image courtesy Wikimedia

"Extravagant understatement" is Kimmelman's perfect phrase for an artist whose work is insistently focused on the small things of everyday life, presented with minimal fuss but with great attention, and with every part of the painting in perfect balance. In the following, Kimmelman eloquently writes about why these paintings are so important, why they prompt thoughts of God:
I suspect it has to do with the particular quality of his silence. His are pictures of an extraordinary hushed reverence for the dignity of modest things, for paint's ability to simulate those things, and for a viewer's elevation through extended looking at those things. With Chardin one loses track of time staring, say, at a bunch of cherries, wondering at their translucence, then counting the cherries––there are five––and noticing that the five matches the sum of two peaches a green apple, and two sections of a split apricot to create perfect symmetry in the picture. A tiny observation, but like many simple facts of life, strangely marvelous when it turns out to be a key to some greater truth in life. Chardin's work is a compilation of these little facts that together make as true a record of the value of seeing the world in all its details as exists in the history of art.

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, The Silver Tureen, detail, ca. 1728

When you look closely at a Chardin painting, like this one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you marvel at the tenderness and care taken to paint these details: the hair of a rabbit, the shine of silver.

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Water Glass and Jug, ca. 1760
image courtesy Wikimedia

Chardin's simplest paintings touch me the most: why is it that a few commonplace things on the table––a drinking glass filled with water, a brown jug, three white onions with their roots still attached, a plant sprig––gathered in perfect balance, make me feel close to weeping. Kimmelman writes that "children see the world with fresh eyes".
Maybe this is why artists who push us to look more carefully at simple things may also strike a slightly melancholic note. They remind us of a childlike condition of wonderment that we abandoned once we became adults and that we need art to highlight occasionally, if only to recall for us what we have given up.
They also remind us of the fragility of life. These small pleasures, generally so fleeting, are given us to enjoy in a way that is beyond the physical.

John F. Peto, Cup, 1890s

The paintings of an American, John F. Peto, have a similar sense of longing and loss as those of Chardin. I fell in love with his work at an exhibition at the National Gallery in the early 1980s. Much of his work is small––the three I'm showing you are less than 10 inches––but even the larger pieces have a sense of an arrested moment of intimacy. Like Chardin, Peto has a delicate, sensitive brush; the paint is descriptive yet alive. If you compare his paintings with those of his contemporary, William Harnett, Peto's have more life and a stronger formal presence; it is as though he is attempting to get at the soul of his objects, not simply their appearance.

John F. Peto, Help Yourself, 1881

It is partly because Chardin and Peto have such a command of form––of color and light, structure and space, and a consummate command of brush and paint––that their images of quite ordinary things become transcendent. Who would have thought that a small painting of candy spilling out of a white paper bag would evoke life at its most poignant?

John F. Peto, Quill in Inkwell, Book and Candle, 1894

Peto's compositions are rigorous, giving a sense that every volume, shape, and edge are carefully arranged. In this taut simplicity is a quiet eloquence.

  "To restore silence is the role of objects."
     Samuel Beckett, Molloy

September 8, 2014

A New Group of Small Drawings

sd 9, egg tempera on hand toned paper, ca. 7 x 7 in.

Of the several bodies of work that I produce––paintings, drawings, cardboard prints, boxed paintings, textiles, hooked wool drawings––there are two that fill me with intense doubt: the potato prints and this relatively new group of small drawings (You can see the first 8 pieces I did here.)  I am working somewhat against my sensibility with these, a sensibility more at home with the clarity of geometry and a precisely defined structure. Yet at the same time I'm intrigued by the possibilities of fluidity and improvisation; I feel I should stretch my comfort zone and keep going, and maybe something will come of it. I prepare the papers at the same time as I prepare the paper for my larger drawings, but I approach the task with more openness, working with brushmarks and layering of color. The violet pigment was acting strangely when I was toning this piece of paper: it kept globbing up, but I decided to just work with it. When I came to add some paint to it, I made just three small lines of violet, similar yet a little different from the irregular marks of violet on the paper's surface.

sd 10, egg tempera on hand toned paper, ca. 7 x 7 in.

Okay, I say to myself, you can also be a painterly painter if you want to I prepared some papers with very visible brushwork, creating space and composition. I made very minimal additions to these papers, intending them to be quiet remarks.

sd 11, egg tempera on hand toned paper, ca. 7 x 7 in.

For some reason, this toned paper asked for a small volume floating on its surface.

sd 12, egg tempera on hand toned paper, ca. 7 x 7 in.

Although it is dark, this paper has a sparkly surface because I used a pigment called Iron glimmer. The dark red lines that I added with paint tended to sink into the surface, so I glazed them with a couple of layers of the egg medium to make them shinier.

sd 13, egg tempera on hand toned paper, ca. 7 x 7 in.

I sit looking at the paper for a long time before I touch my brush to the surface: what to do, what to do? I am never sure that what I choose to do makes sense, but here I was thinking about emphasizing the diagonal mark of the brush.

sd 14, egg tempera on hand toned paper, ca. 7 x 7 in.

In sd 14 I added five little blobby lines; the other lines were from toning the paper.

sd 15, egg tempera on hand toned paper, ca. 7 x 7 in.

For some reason it is very difficult to photograph reds, and the red center with its green border may not be very accurate as to color. I chose to emphasize the squarish opening with a linear square, then added a glazed square on top of it; it changes color and value depending on the position of your eye.

sd 16, egg tempera on hand toned paper, ca. 7 x 7 in.

One small addition in paint: a blue rectangle, off center, its solidity making it appear to float over the transparent ground. I sometimes feel as though I'm floating far from solid ground while I work on these small drawings, but I suppose that as long as they interest me, no matter their quality, I will keep making them; uncertainty can be a good thing.

September 7, 2014

The Dazzling Light of a Late Summer, Early Morning

When I stepped outside early this morning the air was crisp and the light was golden and raking, picking out details while leaving large swaths of leaf and ground in shadow. After days of welcome summer warmth, with air thick and moist, I am now ready for the clarity of fall.

Bedraggled honeysuckle leaves float against the clear blue sky, made beautiful by the sparkling light.

The pond is in shadow, but grasses at its edge catch the sun.

The reflection of birches is crystal clear.

An intense pink, the remaining petals of an Obedient plant shine in front of dark weeds and sedges, the pond water a deep blue.

The low, early sun has illuminated details of sedges, distinct in front of the soft pond reflections.

When I walked back towards the house, I saw unopened yellow flower heads picked out in light while the surrounding grass was still mainly shadowed. It was as if many little spotlights were on, illuminating characters about to begin their act. I finally researched the name of these dandelion-like flowers that are so widespread here: Cat's-ear, so named for its hairy leaves, like the interior of a cat's ear.

When I came indoors, I noticed many small, 1/4 inch, burrs attached to my fleece bathrobe (yes, I went out to take pictures in my bathrobe, with bare feet in garden clogs). They are wonderfully clever for seed dispersal. If you enlarge the photo, you'll see the small red hooks that attach themselves to people or animals walking by. It's not surprising that the inventor of Velcro, Georges de Mestral, was inspired by the burdock burrs that attached to him and his dog during a walk in the Alps.

Here are reasons I love writing this blog: going out in the stunning light of early morning with a task to perform, one that helps me to see things I would not have noticed. And a reason to learn new things––the name of a flower, the history of velcro and its relation to nature––things I would never have learned otherwise.