March 29, 2016

Ozu's Eye: The Transcendence of the Ordinary

The camera lingers, still and quiet, for many seconds, on a simple hanging lamp. A gong sounds.....

....and the view swings outward to women walking down a street. These are the opening scenes of Yasujiro Ozu's 1936 film The Only Son. They tell us that this will be a tale of ordinary people that has large and tragic dimensions:
"Life's tragedy begins with the bond between parent and child."
Ryunosuke Akutagawa, quoted as the epigraph for The Only Son

I haven't watched an Ozu film in a while, so I was again struck by his remarkable sensibility, one that sees the common objects of the world in a way as to make them characters in the drama; they expand our understanding. Ozu demands that we pay close attention to the world he shows us. Several years ago I wrote a post about a beautiful later color film of his, Floating Weeds, which you can read here. The Only Son begins in a provincial town, whose main product is silk; the mother of the story works at spinning silk. These wheels are protagonists, as we see them change over the years into more industrialized machinery.

Ozu uses a very low camera angle, so the figures in the film achieve a monumentality within their everyday lives and stories. We are almost always aware of them as part of an environment, composed in such a way as to emphasize their feelings. The widow O-Tsune has just told her young son, Ryosuke, that she will sacrifice so that he can continue his schooling and become a "great man". His stance, facing away from us, leaning against the wall, shows a deep ambivalence and sadness in leaving his mother.

Years later O-Tsune goes to visit her son in Tokyo, who is living very modestly with a wife and newborn son. She sits in his house, framed by everyday objects and a glamorous image of Marlene Dietrich (?....she and her son go to see a German film within this film). The bowed sadness of O-Tsune is heightened by these surroundings.

 Sometimes with scene changes, Ozu first focuses on industrial objects in the landscape....

....or shows us a mixed scene of industry alongside a house, with plants, and laundry hanging. His fixed camera shows us this shirt blowing in the wind, the pipes and tanks behind it, and soon two figures––those of O-Tsune and Ryosuke––move across the still image, an image of jarring contrasts.

Ozu loves laundry: he returns to this scene several times, and lets the camera linger. What is it about household items hanging outdoors that is so poignant? a metaphor for the tenuous and fleeting nature of life?

Back at home, O-Tsune is a small, elderly worker amid baskets that are like human sentinels, all dwarfed by mute buildings.....

.....and lastly we see, as a symbol of her life, a courtyard leading to a closed gate. Ozu touches deep feelings with reticence, making them all the more touching.

March 28, 2016

A New Painting: "Large and Small Circles"

I've finished the last (on the right) of a group of four vertical paintings. Each painting has slightly different dimensions, but their overall similarity of mood makes me think of them together.

Large and Small Circles, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 9 1/2 x 7 in.

This painting is the only one with a second color having some dominance. The painting on the left in the group photo, Angled Bar, also has a blue color at the upper right, but it is closer in hue to the main color. In this new painting, I was drawn to the large split circle; we can see that its bottom portion is bent upward, catching more light. This adds a bit of the unexpected to the image.

Large and Small Circles detail

Then there's that little rectangular hole, asking for attention.

Large and Small Circles detail

The large circle is made up of flat planes, but the smaller ones below are rounded. The two of them side by side, with their volume, gives them enough visual presence to keep my eye moving back and forth across the surface of the painting.

March 25, 2016

An Early-Spring Surprise: The Beauty of Freezing Rain

March is a flighty month, unable to settle on any one season or type of weather. After several lovely spring-like days, it turned wintry again. Temperatures in the 20s feel a great deal colder in March than they do in January. Sometimes unwanted weather can bring with it a gift, as did this morning's freezing rain: it encased branches and twigs and grasses in ice.....

....making a softly glittering landscape.

Branches were outlined in light, and rocks had thin coverings of snow and ice.

Each red line of the Burning Bush was emphasized by white.

It was poignant to see the swelling buds of lilac in their icy covering.

Sparkling ice made jewels of dried hydrangea....

....and goldenrod....

....and asters. The weather will warm again tomorrow, so I will be back in the orchard pruning apple trees, and in the vegetable garden laying out rows for planting. But there will likely be more winter events before spring settles in for good.

March 24, 2016

Two New Clay Reliefs: "Convergence" and "Lines and Curves"

Convergence, porcelain with acrylic paint, 8 1/8 x 9 x 7/8 in.

I'm beginning to get a better sense of where I'm heading with low relief sculpture. A big change with this piece, Convergence, is that I have eliminated the framing panel, which is part of the second piece below. When I posted about my last reliefs, I included a photo of them hanging on the wall in my studio, alongside some paintings; you can see that photo here. I played with the image in Photoshop, erasing the frame panels, then posted both images, with and without, on Facebook, asking which version people preferred. The overwhelming response was that I should eliminate the frame, which pleased me because I liked them better that way too. Convergence is my first attempt at a piece whose image stands alone on the wall, with no frame. A benefit of the no-frame is that I can make the image panel larger: the kiln has size limitations.

Convergence detail

As with previous work, I am fascinated by line, by the meeting of one plane with another and the different ways that can be described.

Lines and Curves, porcelain with acrylic paint, 9 3/4 x 8 7/8 x 7/8 in.

For the compositions of my clay reliefs I've been alternating abstractions based on small thumbnail sketches, such as Lines and Curves, and abstractions inspired by photo images of farm machinery, similar to those I use for my paintings, as in Convergence above. I like going back and forth between the two, as they provide different kinds of forms and structure. 

Lines and Curves detail

I begin with a full-size line drawing, which I trace onto the slab of clay. I have just line and shape, and overlapping shapes, in the drawing; my carving into the clay, and sometimes adding clay, is a fluid process. I don't know ahead of time that I will use a deep sloping edge for that lower curve, or that I will draw a thin line in the clay with a rubber shaper, repeating the curve of the upper form; or that a certain line will be sharp and another rounded. I have an idea, that idea leads to another. There is a constant reassessment of relationships during the working of the piece; the initial sculpting takes place over a couple of days, then there is refinement at the leather hard stage and sanding when it's bone dry. I paint the piece after it's fired, and choosing a color is intuitive, with lots of color mixing involved.

Here are the two new pieces on my studio wall, hanging next to two paintings. It's easier to see the difference between the unframed and framed reliefs. I feel that the low reliefs are a good companion to my paintings, and they are also a bridge to my textile works.

March 21, 2016

The Emotional Resonance of Color

Henri Matisse, Memories of Oceania

Soon there came to me, like a revelation, the love of materials for their own sake....I felt growing within me a passion for color.
Henri Matisse, quoted in The Unknown Matisse by Hilary Spurling. 

It is impossible to stand in front of one of Matisse's late cut-outs and not have a powerful response to the color, color which carries within it feelings of openness and joy, and pulsing energy. The marriage of shape and color seems a perfect one, but it is the color which most entrances.

Matisse, Maquette for Jazz

Matisse spoke of a childhood memory of illumined color that I can picture in my mind; I imagine that it stayed with him as a kind of magic:
The second shop window was the best: twelve tubular glass bottles, drawn up in battle order on a stand and filled to the brim with colours whose very names made me feel proud. They were, in order, pale chrome yellow, dark chrome yellow, cadmium, cobalt blue, ultramarine, Prussian blue, milori green, English green, rose madder, Austrian vermilion, Turkey red and pure carmine. 

Josef Albers, Color Study, Platinum

Josef Albers' life work in painting and in teaching was centered in the relationships of colors:
In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is
––as it physically is.
This fact makes color the most relative medium in art.
Albers, Interaction of Color
Regarding color memory he wrote:
If one says "Red" (the name of a color)
and there are 50 people listening,
it can be expected that there will be 50 reds in their minds.
And one can be sure that all these reds will be very different.

Albers, Study for Homage to the Square, Night Shades

Those different colors in our minds also come along with different feelings. Looking at the two Albers studies above, the moods they evoke are of bright day and of evening. Albers himself, in using the title Night Shades, understood how dark hues, close in value, remind us of the time of day when color and form are subdued and sink into near formlessness. Does that make us sad, or nostalgic, or touched with another feeling? As in thinking of red, we each will bring our own response.

Lyubov Popova, Painterly Architectonic

I love that Popova, in the era of Russian constructivism, chose red and pink for a two of her paintings of 1917; the high seriousness of this revolutionary period in art is tickled with the unconventional color choices.

Mary Heilmann, Garden of Allah, 1986

Intense candy colors vibrate and glow against their surrounding black. Heilmann's color surprises and brings forth physical sensations––a juiciness in the mouth, a brightness in the eye––and a memory of neon emerging from the warm dark.

Golu, The Lover Prepares to Depart

The artists in this post are ones I often turn to when I'm looking for color ideas for my own work. Indian painters have a rich sense of color relationships. Colors are pure and direct and can show mystery and opulence and sensuality....

Early Master at Mandi Court, Gopis Pleading with Krishna

....or a lovely delicacy. The pale minty greens are a delight as contrasted with the dark greens and the warm-colored flesh of the poor Gopis whose clothes were stolen by Krishna.

Osservanza Master, Saint Anthony

Beautiful grays describe the desert of Saint Anthony, but his halo repeats the vividness of the evening sky and the distant church; those bright colors are of the shining spirit.

Goethe, in his Theory of Colors, ascribed emotional attributes to color, such as for green: "The eye experiences a distinctly grateful impression from this color." Brainpickings has assembled several quotes. We can read Goethe and see if we agree with his assessments, or if we think it is too simplistic to assign a feeling to a color.

Leftover wool from textiles 

I've been thinking a lot recently about how color affects us. My choice of colors for my textiles is often based on what kind of mood I want to evoke; the same composition using red and black would have a very different effect in pink and green. When I sit at my work table staring at a just-fired, pure white porcelain relief sculpture, I have to figure out what color to paint it. The form may ask me for a certain color, or the feeling I want to achieve may demand a certain color, but it's not at all obvious. (You can see two painted reliefs at this link.) The world of color is complex and wide and deep, and exhilarating.

March 17, 2016

Mandelbrot: the Jewish Biscotti

I love having some cookies in the house to have with my afternoon tea; a little bit of sweet energizes me for the rest of the day and evening. This recipe, from Claudia Roden's The Book of Jewish Food, is my favorite for this purpose: the cookies have some sweetness to them, but it's not overpowering, they are not too rich, and the texture is nicely crisp but not hard. The term biscotti means "twice baked". The Wikipedia entry says biscotti originated in the city of Prato and traditionally they also have almonds, just as mandelbrot, "almond bread", does; I don't know how the two are related. The Jewish version has more oil than biscotti, so is a little more cakey and less dense. The recipe is pretty simple and makes 3 or 4 dozen cookies. They keep very well in a tight container, but I freeze most of them and just take out several at a time. It's also nice to have a little treat in the house if a friend happens to stop by. 


3 eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
grated zest of one lemon
grated zest of one orange
a few drops of vanilla extract
a pinch of salt
1 Tbs baking powder
3 3/4 cups flour
1/2 to 1 cup blanched almonds (I use 1 cup)
1 egg yolk to glaze. 

  • Beat the eggs with the sugar to a pale, thick cream. Add the oil, lemon and orange zest, vanilla, salt, baking powder and beat to a light emulsion.
  • Blend in the flour, then work in the blanched almonds. 
  • Oiling your hands so they don't stick, form the dough into two long logs, about 3 inches wide, leaving space between them. I use parchment paper rather than oiling the pan. It is clean and convenient. 
  • Brush with egg yolk (I didn't do that for this batch....lazy me).
  • Bake in preheated 350º oven for 30 minutes or until lightly browned. 

  • Let the logs cool, then cut into diagonal slices about 1/2 inch thick. 
  • Arrange on baking sheets, cut side down, and bake in preheated 400º oven for about 10 minutes, or until lightly browned.
  • I turn the cookies over to brown the other side, for an additional 5 or 10 minutes. 


March 15, 2016

A New Painting: "Scoop"

Scoop, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 9 x 6 3/4 in.

Most paintings go fairly smoothly for me in their process, with the usual challenges and adjustments and reworkings; but occasionally it's as though I hit a wall, as though I don't know anything about color and light and paint. This image was one of those tough ones, on which I worked for hours, repainting sections over and over, wiping off, repainting. I simply couldn't get the color right: the yellows were dark and dead and the sense of light nonexistent; bits of dust were settling in the paint, causing it to lift off. After struggling with the painting for 2 or 3 days, I realized the only thing to do was to wipe it all off and start again. The struggle is never without value because I learn something, if only what not to do. When I started the painting again, I used more color in the shadows and made them lighter in value. Yellow is a trickster: how to make darks of such a light color? How cool or warm should shadows be? 

Scoop detail

I made the shadows cool at their edges, shifting to warm for the bounced reflected lights. I'm working on a green painting now, and I can definitely say that green is a piece of cake compared to yellow.

March 13, 2016


It was a beautiful day yesterday, with bright sun and temperatures in the 50s....the excitement of Spring! We've had an almost worryingly mild winter, so things are getting off to an early start this year. Snowdrops are the first floral harbinger of spring: last year March and April were very cold; as I look back on the photo I took of snowdrops in 2015, it is dated April 7th, more than 3 weeks later than today.

As I wandered across the mud of my vegetable garden I saw bits of green: here last year's parsley regrowing. It's a biennial, but I've never had much luck having the plants for a second year, but maybe this year I will.

Perennial herbs begin to pop up early.  The slender fingers of chives wave upward....

....and the rounded leaves of sorrel poke up. They have a lovely red tint early in the season; as they grow they become pure green. At this stage the leaves are very small, 1 or 2 inches long, but so resolutely growing.

There are some green leaves on the parsnips. I went into the garden this afternoon with my shovel, planning to dig them up and have delicious roast parsnips with dinner, but when I put the shovel in the ground it only went down a couple of inches: the ground is still frozen solid under a layer of mud. Soon......

Other flowers are beginning to pop up: the tulips I plant for cutting looking like elongated candy corn....

....and some daylilies, encouraged by the warmth radiating from the south-facing granite foundation of the house.

Lastly, the earliest of daffodils, the small yellow February Gold is off to a good start. They will be the second flower to bloom in my garden. All this happens every year and is quite ordinary, but every year this reawakening thrills me and fills me with anticipatory joy.