Stratoz and I went to see the Iron and Coal, Petroleum and Steel: Industrial Art from the Steidle Collection Exhibit at the James Michener Art Museum(on view until October 25, 2015). I was interested to note the context of this collection, assembled by the Edward Steidle(1887-1977) Dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences at Penn State. Steidle purchased and commissioned these paintings to as a way to demonstrate the various industrial processes and the critical role of the extractive industries in Pennsylvania to his students. The Industrial Art homage at the Michener is notable for the predominance of flame, with the glowing orange of molten steel. Artists were drawn like moths to a flame, and each had a style that captured the scenes of the furnaces in a different way. The blazing colors are beautiful, and yet ominous in the power to cause injury and in their intense heat.
I’d never seen a steel factory until I moved to Bethlehem, PA, from Canada in 1985. It rose up like a mountain from the South Side, and had produced steel for the Golden Gate bridge and much of the New York skyline. 1985 was at the tail end of the Steel, losing money, cutting workers. When I started college a few years later, I took a class in United States Labor History, and have been drawn to stories like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and the poetry of Muriel Rukeyser who wrote movingly of the Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster.
We lived in Dunmore, PA in the early 1990’s. The coal mining industry left its mark with a network of tunnels beneath the town, and the threat of homes and grounds sinking. Subsidence was a new word that I learned in those years, especially when a hole opened up in a friend’s backyard in a neighboring town. I was interested to see that the Michener exhibit had a painting by a Dunmorean, John Willard Raught(1857-1931). He studied art in New York City, and returned home to paint portraits and landscapes of the area. He had an exhibit at a local club in 1915, where most of the paintings appear to be tranquil landscapes rather than the mining scenes. The Michener Museum notes that Raught felt conflicted by the coal industry which while providing jobs for those he knew, also scarred the landscape, and the forboding fears of disaster, and painted many of the anthracite breakers which he called “Black Castles.”
I have a compelling desire to create rainbows. I have made many of them in mosaic. Once a woman came into my craft show booth and was smitten with one of my rainbow panels, but said she couldn’t buy it because her husband would be affronted by the gay implications, and gave an awkward shrug. This made me both sad and angry.
With the Supreme Court ruling about marriage and gay folk in June, 2015, there is an abundance of rainbows appearing on my Facebook stream, and it’s outburst of talking my rainbow language, and to me this ruling good news, just as God’s love is good news.
My love of rainbows began at Moravian Church Camp Van Es at Cooking Lake in Alberta. The theme in 1982 was The Rainbow Connection. We each had a slice a log, and a volunteer had applied rainbows and written our names. We watched The Muppet Movie with the theme song The Rainbow Connection, and learned the to sing it. We painted a large rainbow backdrop, in an open area in the woods.
We memorized Bible verses about the rainbow as a symbol of God’s promise to never again cover the earth in a great flood, a sign of God’s love. What gave it power was the idea that this love extended to me, though I felt flawed through my core, cracked with no method of repair. True grace is a very difficult thing to accept, because the bruised soul assumes it applies to everyone else except her.
I took the idea of hope and love to heart. I bought a pewter pendant cast in the form of a rainbow and embedded with an Ichthys fish(a visual pun, an acronym of the Greek letters spelling out Jesus Son of God, which also meant fish). I wore it often, as a way to remain hopeful.
Now, some 30 years later, I look at it and wonder at the grayness of this rainbow, and no wonder I feel compelled to create them in full color. For a girl of 14, coming out of a year of depression, the colors were intense. There is power in symbols, but also the power of color itself, the incarnation of beauty.
This piece caught my eye at the Corning Museum of Glass. It was mounted in front of a lightbox and the colors of glass emerged in glowing layers. Before I started making mosaics, I made collages with magazine paper and the Gemmail technique is like having those scraps of paper turn to glass. Artist Jean Crotti wanted to incorporate light into his paintings in a new way and began working with thin glass glued and then fused, and called it Gemmail from combining the French words for gem and enamel(Gemmaux in the plural).
Crotti sought advice on the logistics of his technique with his neighbors, the Malherbe-Navarre family, physicists studying light and fluorescence. Eventually Roger Malherbe-Navarre became the primary maker of Gemmail, and artists like Braque and Picasso were enchanted, and wanted to translate their paintings into glass and light.
A reviewer of a set of Gemmail windows, Winefride Wilson from a 1964 issue of Tablet, was ambivalent, torn between the wonder of the effect and concern that it reminded her of childhood kaleidoscopes, and hard to take seriously. I have no such reservations ~ I am on the side of wonder.
Listening was my natural state as a child. Listening to the adults tell stories to me, or talk to each other above me. I became a writer with my storehouse of listening.
Stratoz and I had a Christmas commission to create a sign with the word Listening for a spiritual director. Listening had become a gift of her vocation, when her natural state was talking.
I was introduced to spiritual direction at the University of Scranton in the early 1990s, where I had my first librarian job. The University had a contemplative spirituality program, and I started seeing an Ignatian nun(as she called herself) once a week. She asked me about my experiences that week, and asked me where I found God in this. Then she would listen. It was as if she was handling a treasure, gently holding it in her hands.
Winding my way around the letters of listening many years later, I am grateful for the listeners in my life who encouraged me, recognized me, loved me, and my desire is to stay true to my listening nature, and in turn encourage, recognize, and love.
July 2014 is the 4th Anniversary of my Independence. My employer closed the library in which I worked and let me go. I am thinking about that phrase, “Let me go.” They let me go, and I went. I was scared, anxious and sad. I worried about money. I felt unnecessary, obsolete and hurt. They let me go, and I decided to let them go, and work for myself as an artist.
Now, I can’t imagine working for someone else. It is both scary and exhilarating to choose my own path, knowing that each month I start again with the balance sheet.
Stratoz and I were on vacation in 2010 when the list of those who were laid off was announced(and which thankfully I did not know until I got back). This photo is from our 2014 vacation trip to Rochester, NY, with the sculpture at the Rochester Memorial Art Gallery by Beverly Pepper. I read a story about the artist which I admire:
Turning from painting to sculpture in 1960, Pepper first carved in wood, a plentiful and inexpensive material. Instead of hand chisels, she preferred power tools as appropriate to the modern Machine Age. In 1962 the organizer of the music and art festival at Spoleto, Italy, invited ten sculptors to use local steel factories as their studios for a month. Of the three Americans, two were well-established masters of abstract metal constructions: Alexander Calder and David Smith. The third was Pepper, who did not yet even know how to weld. So she apprenticed herself to an ironmonger and shortly thereafter made her first steel sculpture, nearly eighteen feet tall. Thereafter, Pepper sculpted only in metal on a monumental scale, preferably for installation outdoors in urban spaces.
Beverly Pepper | Landmarks.
I admire Pepper’s confidence. She didn’t know how to weld, but she wanted to weld, and onward she went. Another independent spirit!
What is independence for you?