July 31, 2013

Flowing Line, and Pattern, in Japanese Prints

Chobunsai Eishi, Elegant Reworking of the Tale of Genji: Wind in the Pines, 1791-92

The Hood Museum of Art is a physically small museum, but their collections are extensive; we are lucky enough to see them when the museum mounts special exhibitions. I wrote about an exhibition of their Native American collection here, Native American ledger drawings here, and their outstanding collection of contemporary Australian Aboriginal art here and here. I recently had the pleasure of seeing a beautiful exhibition of outstanding Japanese prints titled "The Women of Ukiyo-e: The Judith and Joseph Barker Collection of Japanese Prints". Images of the "floating world"––ukiyo-e––a world of actors and courtesans, became a subject for prints in the late 17th century. The curators of this show chose to focus on the women of that world, leaving out the many images of famous actors. The compositions of the prints range from complex, as in the two triptychs I am showing here, to fairly simple; the color is subtle and harmonious.

Chobunsai Eishi, Elegant Reworking of the Tale of Genji: Wind in the Pines, detail

What most interests me, what I have chosen to focus on, in this group of prints is the way line flows gracefully from one form to the next, sometimes its curves are alongside the straight lines of architecture. Within the sinuous lines are patterns accentuating the form, or flattening it.

I am sorry that I forgot to photograph the wall label for this stunning triptych, so don't whose work it is. The sweeping curve of boats across three panels is quite dramatic. As always, you can click on images to enlarge them.

I was particularly struck by the complexity of pattern in the woman's kimono, and how a bold design is contrasted with the more detailed design of the obi, or wide sash.

Kikugawa Eizan, Fanciful Eight Views of Long Chants: Lingering Snow of the Heron Maiden

Lines of the kimono flow like water onto the floor...

Kikugawa Eizan, Fanciful Eight Views of Long Chants: Lingering Snow of the Heron Maiden, detail

...where they divide the cloth into numerous patterns. The sensitive outlines also express the underlying form of limbs; we get a feeling of volume without any modeling of light and shade.

Keisai Eisen, Woman with Parasol, ca. 1843

Japanese printmakers are masters of the tall, thin composition, here creating dynamic energy and fullness in a tight format. Tall narrow compositions were known as hashira-e, "pillar prints".

Keisai Eisen, Woman with Parasol, detail

I love the way the geometric pattern interacts with the floral: so rich and so unexpected.

Torii Kiyonaga, Lovers as Mitate of Kanzan and Jittoku, late 1770s

This tall, thin print has a much calmer feeling than the one before, as the lines flow quietly downward. The wall label informs me that Mitate-e are reworkings of old cultural traditions, here referring to a poet and his friend, residents of a monastery during the Tang dynasty. The poem on the image reads:
Quarrels between two lovers may, perhaps, be swept away with a broom.

Torii Kiyonaga, Lovers as Mitate of Kanzan and Jittoku, detail

The long vertical lines are different from those of the patterned robe, yet emphasize a harmonious mingling.

Kitagawa Utamaro, Eight Views of Tea Stalls in Celebrated Places: Oseyo of the Hiranoya
ca. 1795-96

This print is so elegant, so simple: a movement of line from the voluptuous headdress down the neck, into the dark outlines of kimono, and circling back up the arm and hand. There is only a subtle pattern in the clothing, but then the artist surprises us with the thin screen covering half of the woman's face; her reflection is open to us, her actual self is hidden. The distant floating world is present and beautiful to us in these prints.

*A note: I took these photos at the museum, and with nothing to compare them to, I am guessing as to the color. I think it's close enough to give a good idea of the work.  

July 29, 2013

A Walk in the Woods: "....to see what is there."

John Cage, the artist (musician, composer, writer, visual artist) was also an amateur mycologist, so he spent a lot of time in the woods. He wrote:
One shouldn't go to the woods looking for something, but rather to see what is there.
Seeing what is there, allowing the wonder of things––"I am here to wonder." J.W. Goethe––to penetrate my sometimes distracted, anxious, sad, self, turns my inward worrying out to the world. So seeing a dangling stem of ripening chokecherries as I entered the woods becomes a moment of joy.

Last week, on my return from a trip, I felt frazzled and overwhelmed; I didn't go for a walk, from busyness or bad weather, for several days. When I finally picked up my camera and walked the few steps into the woods, I entered another world, different enough from my home and yard that it brightened my attitude. This transition reminded me of the opening of Melville's Moby Dick, when after introducing himself, "Call me Ishmael.", the narrator goes on to write:
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off––then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
For me, it's high time to take a walk with my camera, to pay attention to whatever is there, perhaps the surprise of red leaves in the midst of green in mid-summer....

...or a scaly mushroom with a center of toothy protuberances that look like grabbing teeth, as though it might be a carnivore. I used to think that a camera was a barrier between a person and the world, a false way of seeing, but in the four years that I've been writing this blog, I've come to realize that the camera is an extension of a searching eye, and that it enables me to see much more than I would without it; it encourages me to notice everything. Here is a terrific quote from Henri Cartier-Bresson on taking photographs:
To take photographs means to recognize––simultaneously and within a fraction of a second––both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. It is a putting of one's head, one's eye, and one's heart on the same axis.

This compact mass of young green seeds on a cedar tree has a feeling of bound energy; the bright green against the cooler dark of the needles is festive.

Here was a mushroom, I believe it's a Crown-tipped coral mushroom, that to me looked like a cathedral, with flying buttresses arcing skyward. These are all quite ordinary things, but at the same time beautiful and not at all commonplace. It is so important to turn away from the internal churning wheels and face outward. From William James:
To be rapt with satisfied attention, like [Walt] Whitman, to the spectacle of the world's presence, is one way, and the most fundamental way, of confessing one's sense of its unfathomable significance and importance. 

July 26, 2013

I Remembered Joe Brainard's "I Remember"

A couple of days ago, while I was writing the blog post "At a Small Historical Museum", many childhood memories were triggered; something else I remembered was Joe Brainard's marvelous book titled I Remember. The entire 138 pages consists of sentences and short paragraphs beginning with the phrase "I remember":
I remember pink cotton candy and feeling all "sticky" afterwards.
I remember looking very close at cotton candy and seeing that it was made up of little red "beads". 
I remember a coconut kind of candy that looked like thin slices of watermelon. 
I remember "nigger babies." Candy corn. And red hots. 
I remember finger painting and usually ending up with a sort of purple-brown mess.  
I remember jungle gyms and girls who didn't care if you saw their panties or not. 
Brainard writes with direct prose, clearly observant, that becomes intensely engaging as you read through the book. Some of his memories are mine, although he was a bit older than me and grew up in Tulsa. He was also gay, and many of his sexual memories are included, straightforwardly described. So many of his memories elicit ones of my own, so that I can see sitting and writing a similar list, that would grow as one thought leads to another. This little book began life as a smaller volume, with two more following. All three were all included in this book. Brainard wrote in a letter about how he felt while working on the first I Remember:
I feel very much like God writing the Bible. I mean, I feel like I am not really writing it but that it is because of me that it is being written. I also feel that it is about everybody else as much as it is about me. And that pleases me. I mean, I feel like I am everybody. And it's a nice feeling. It won't last. But I am enjoying it while I can.
Here are more, just from one page opened at random:
I remember green Easter egg grass. 
I remember never really believing in the Easter bunny. Or the sandman. Or the tooth fairy. 
I remember bright colored baby chickens. (Dyed) The died very fast. Or ran away. Or something. I just remember that shortly after Easter they disappeared. 
I remember farts that smell like old eggs. 
I remember one very hot summer day I put ice cubes in my aquarium and all the fish died.  
I remember dreams of walking down the street and suddenly realizing that I have no clothes on. 
I remember a big black cat named Midnight who got so old and grouchy that my parents had him put to sleep. 
I remember making a cross of two sticks for something my brother and me buried. It might have been a cat but I think it was a bug or something. 
I remember regretting things I didn't do. 
I remember wishing I knew then what I know now. 
I remember peach colored evenings just before dark. 
I remember "lavender past". (He has a....) 
I remember Greyhound buses at night. 

An easy slide from one memory to another, just the way our random thoughts work. The prose that is so crisp, so simple, becomes a poetic ode to a life, and to our lives as well. And yes, I remember wearing a red satin dress with gold fringe and dancing a children's Charleston to "Steppin' Out With My Baby".

July 24, 2013

A New Painting: A Diptych, "Untitled (Gold, Turquoise)"

Untitled (Gold Turquoise), egg tempera on calfskin parchment; two panels, each 8 3/8 x 3 3/4 in. 

Does painting a diptych, a two panel work, carry with it an implied narrative, more than a single panel piece? The two parts of the painting "speak" to each other as the eye jumps over the gap and notes the formal relationships. I like this back and forth, the way a form on one side is in tension, or balances, the form on the other. I did lots and lots of photographic studies until I came up with two that worked together. But, I hope that the relationships stay abstract and don't evolve into a story; lack of narrative, for me, doesn't preclude feeling or mood.

Painting the background color took many many layers of paint until it was a color that satisfied me and that was opaque and weighty, yet carried light. I enjoy the relationship of the two basic colors, though what I see on my screen (which I fiddled with endlessly) is close to the color of the painting but not perfect.

Untitled (Gold Turquoise), detail

The texture of the paint is always more visible in a detail shot. I realize that I don't splash paint around, but even with precise handling, I hope that the paint has life. 

July 23, 2013

At A Small Historical Museum: Surprises and Awakened Memories

Visiting a small, local historical museum can be a very touching experience for me. The objects are lovingly gathered and explained by volunteers who are enthusiastic about their subject. The feelings evoked are heightened when I have a personal tie to the place, as I do with the Township of Ocean Historical Museum, located at the north Jersey shore, where I spent all of my childhood summers. The museum is housed in an old house that was built in three stages, the earliest in 1747, which is the room whose hearth you see above.

It is amazing to think that an entire family lived in this room, which seemed no more than 12 feet square. But at the same time, there was beautiful woodwork in the room, indicative of prosperity. A second story was added as the family grew, and twenty years later the house was extended.

This room of the original house was full of interesting small objects, of children's clothes and old kitchen implements.

I learned some fascinating and totally surprising facts about the area: that there was a test site for radio communications right near the current museum. AT&T bought the land in 1919 where they tested wireless transmissions, and developed microwave towers for long distance telephone. In 1953 the site went to the US Army Signal Corps, who first sighted Sputnik from there. In the 1960s the Army sent the first photographic fax from the Deal Test Site. The site became obsolete with a change in technology, and was purchased by the Township of Ocean; it's now Joe Palaia Park.

In a middle room of the museum was a miscellany of objects, including the Deal Test Site information, a tribute to firefighters, things such as old typewriters and gramophones. I was most intrigued by this small case holding syringes and a vial of polio vaccine. I remember lining up to get the polio vaccine at school when I was a child. At the Deal School, children were part of a nationwide trial of the Salk polio vaccine in 1954.

The part of the museum that held the most interest for me was this year's exhibit about Asbury Park. My summers were spent at Bradley Beach––only a couple of miles from Asbury, my friends and I would often walk there––which it turns out was named for the founder of Asbury, James Bradley. Bradley was a devout Methodist who thought to start another town similar to Ocean Grove next door; he named Asbury Park after Francis Asbury, the first Methodist bishop in the U.S., but Asbury changed and became a town of fun and frolic. Looking at that photo above, I remembered, for the first time in years, those paddle boats on the lake.

This hat box, hat, and gloves reminded me of being with my mother at Steinbach's department store on Cookman Avenue. I almost had a madeleine moment, with the smell of the place coming back to my nose; the taste of cinnamon toast to my mouth. I described another shore madeleine moment in this blog post last year, in which the taste of honeysuckle brought back memories.

A strong, joyous memory was triggered by seeing these small brass rings. There were two carousels in Asbury Park, but this was our favorite: as we went round and round, we could gather our courage and reach out to try to grab a ring from a long-armed dispenser. Very occasionally a ring would be golden; I don't remember the prize for that, but I'm sure it was very exciting.

Something I'd completely forgotten were the Swan boats that were on Wesley Lake. I was very excited when a docent told me that there were again swan boats on the lake. I decided to go to Asbury the next morning and see.

Yes, there they were, but they were small pedal boats, and of course made out of fiberglass or some such other modern material. But still, what fun it would be to pedal around the lake in a swan or pelican, or even a green dragon.

Much of Asbury Park is not how I remember it: the penny arcades and games and rides on the boardwalk are gone, replaced, after years of decay, by new and cheerful stores and upscale restaurants. Some of the old glories do remain, though in poor shape. One such is a gorgeous carousel house (not for my favorite carousel), restored enough for occasional theater projects.

Adjoining the carousel house is the Casino, in poor repair, though I've read that it's being restored. It wasn't for gambling, but housed games and rides and concession stands. Both structures were designed by Whitney Warren and Charles Wetmore, who also designed Grand Central Station in NYC. I do miss the brouhaha of those noisy, game-filled places, the bumper cars and pinball games. Are there still any penny arcades anywhere?

Another grand fixture of Asbury Park is Convention Hall at the other end of the boardwalk from the Casino. Its palatial building projects from the boardwalk over the beach and at the building's other end is the large Paramount theater, which now hosts concerts. In between was the wide, high arcade under these windows. I don't remember any particular concert that I saw at Convention Hall (next event coming there is the 4th Annual Visionary Tattoo Arts Festival), but I do remember seeing the Beatles' Hard Days Night at the Paramount, a thrilling experience. I also remember seeing The Ten Commandments with my grandmother at another large theater, since torn down; I was eight years old at the time. There is something about summer memories, of long peaceful days full of pleasures, that is so sweet and strong.

July 22, 2013

Hydrangea Envy at the Jersey Shore

The hydrangeas are in full bloom right now at the New Jersey shore, in colors from pinks to blues to greens, in rounded and elongated forms. How I love these plants that have grand masses of color in the garden, and how I wish I could grow them....but it's too cold in Vermont for these beauties. I get to enjoy them with my eye and my camera when I visit my family during the summer. This Lacecap hydrangea, with large blue flowers surrounding smaller ones at center is in my mother's garden.

A rich salmony-pink one was in a pot on her porch, now planted.

My sister's garden has a marvelous array of varieties; the rest of the photos, except the last, were taken there. White-edged bright pink petals are dotted with a white center.

On this plant, the flower petals softly shift from white to pink.

Another Lacecap, here with the large flowers pink and the center sprays of yellow on blue.

The subtle color variations of pink-violet-blue give the flowers the look of a delicate watercolor. The flower color is determined by the soil acidity, with blue in a more acid soil and pink more alkaline, so I wonder why there's a mix of color––some pink, some blue, some violet––in the same garden; perhaps by using soil amendments.

Then there's the grand drama of the Oakleaf hydrangea, with their very large, open, long flower heads. There were pink and green flowers, which I believe are more mature....

...than the simply green ones, towering over our heads.

This is back at my house: a mass of Annabelle hydrangeas along its east-facing side. Annabelle grows beautifully in my zone 4 garden; I dry large vases of the greening flowers later in the summer. But oh, how I'd love to have some of those blues and pinks!

July 16, 2013

A New Textile: "Color Circle"

Color Circle, hand dyed wool on linen, 12 in. diameter.

I'd been thinking for a while of doing a round piece, and had done several small sketches with different compositional ideas. I decided on a circle with three arcs crossing it, the arcs being much larger in circumference than the circle itself. I liked how the arcs gave the image an illusionistic quality, and I admit I kept thinking "beach ball". After I'd decided on the drawing, color was next: first I did a subtle sketch, using mixed tertiary colors, but then did one with these bright colors (beach ball!). It's summer, time to go with the vivid and bold. I used the red blue green of Ellsworth Kelly (see the painting below) and added a big swath of yellow, having it overlap the blue and red to make a yellow-green and an orange. When dyeing the wool, I tried to make the colors fairly equal in intensity, so no one color would demand the most attention. 

Color Circle, detail

I cut the strips of black slightly narrower than the colors, using a smaller cutting wheel on my Fraser cutting machine. I also had to decide in which direction to hook the wool, settling on continuing the circular pattern from edges to center; the center here being off center from the lines and color. With the black arcs, the hooking pattern emphasizes round.  I'm now tempted to try other circle designs, maybe next flat

Ellsworth Kelly, Red Blue Green, 1963; oil on canvas, 83 5/8 x 135 7/8 in.

July 15, 2013

From Flowers to Fruit

Wild Blackberries

We tend to think of flowers as delightful aesthetic objects, existing for our visual pleasure. It's true that many have been bred precisely for that: as objects of beauty; but of course, flowers are meant to do a job: they are the reproductive part of the plant, which will ensure its survival. When the sperm fertilizes the egg (yes, plants have them too), a seed will form. Those of us with flower borders go around deadheading the plants, cutting off the seeds that have grown from the flowers so as to save the plant's energy. When we are growing fruits or vegetables, however, those same seeds are within our crops. In the photo of a branch of wild blackberries, you can see the development from the flower (click to enlarge), how each tiny ovule is pollinated by a pollen grain, growing in a group to form a "berry". Raspberries would grow the same way, both pollinated by bees or other pollinators.


Peas have pretty flowers, so much so that Sweet Peas were developed, a colorful, fragrant flower. But these are workaday flowers, self pollinating, creating the delicious peas that are just seeds for the next generation. I love seeing the tiny pods emerging from the flower, and watching how they grow and fill out.


Tomato flowers are also self pollinating, so don't need the busy bees to set fruit. The photograph shows different stages of tomato growth, from a drying flower having done its job, to a small fruit, to larger ones. It's curious to me that we call all these foods which contain seeds "vegetables", rather then fruit, which is what they actually are. I suppose it's because we think of "fruit" as a dessert.


Peppers, which are in the same family––the nightshades––as tomatoes and eggplants, grow in similar fashion: self pollinating flowers from which emerge the fruit.

Winter Squash

The squash family goes about its seed producing business very differently: here there are separate male and female flowers, the female flower easily identifiable because of the small fruit at its base.


In order for the fruit to be pollinated, flying pollinators are needed, and it's always a joy to see bees or other little insects moving in and out of the flowers. Without proper pollination, the fruit will just wither away instead of growing. I've never had luck trying to hand pollinate these plants, so rely on my insect friends. After many years of gardening, I still find it miraculous that a large plant will grow from a small seed and in turn create more seeds; it's the magic of life.