Part of being an artist is being surrounded by my materials, and my art unfolding from their inspiration. Our surroundings may bear the imprint of our aesthetic passions. A friend, Ivan Chan, once shared a photo of a chest of drawers he described as part card catalog, part Chinese apothecary cabinet, which caught my eye. Perhaps part of my attraction to the librarian profession was my love of libraries as a place, and the fantastic furniture of knowledge embodied in a card catalog. At University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, the main library card catalog lined the hallways. The drawers glided out, and with the right motion could be unhooked and rested on a sliding panel tucked into the center of each cabinet.
Ivan is an artist and a psychotherapist, and a print of his, Here Kitty, watches over my studio. The aesthetics of a psychotherapist office having a role in guiding him to the profession echoes what I felt about libraries and now with my studio. The time I spent in such offices contributed to the possibility of creating art, to taking my love of color and creation seriously.
What surroundings are you drawn to? Is your profession or passion connected to a certain place and aesthetic?
The folks at Painted Paisley were sharing some of their beautiful suits for Diwali, and I wanted to know more about this celebration. As I discovered, Diwali is a festival of lights celebrated in India and in other countries by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains. Diwali is the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil and knowledge over ignorance.
Rangoli are part of the celebration, and the Sanskrit word means a creative expression in art using color. Women often create them on the floor, or at the doorway to welcome guests and the Goddess Lakshmi. Rangoli remind me of mandalas, and the vibrant color resonates with what inspires me in art.
Diyas, clay oil lamps, are lit as an expression of this triumph of light over darkness at Diwali.
The lamps made me think of Stratoz’s stained glass night light.
The color orange is woven throughout Diwali, from glowing orange lights, to rangoli composed of marigolds, to Diwali sweets like carrot halwa and jalebi, to deep orange sarees.
W is for Wernersville, PA and the Jesuit Center. When I was introduced to the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises at the University of Scranton, little did I know that Stratoz be the one most touched by them. My spiritual director, when I told her I was moving to Lansdale, had said “Wernersville. That is where you need to go.” I did, and was entranced by the art that is an integral part of the Jesuit Center, especially the mosaics by Hildreth Meiere in the chapel.
Stratoz was intrigued by the Jesuit Center’s silent retreats, and although he hadn’t done the Spiritual Exercises in Scranton, he went on a silent retreat and was refreshed, and has kept going over the years. He has designed much artwork there.
He is well acquainted with the trees.
I discovered that my studio is my place of reflection, so I haven’t been to Wernersville in awhile, but I see the effect it has on Stratoz, and I remember how Hildreth Meiere’s mosaic sparked my love of mosaic, and it is close to my heart.
These include a sense of collaboration with God’s action in the world, spiritual discernment in decision making, generosity of response to God’s invitation, fraternity and companionship in service, and a disposition to find God in all things. Spiritual integration is a prominent theme of the Exercises: integration of contemplation and action, prayer and service, and emotions and reason.
When I was 7 or 8, our next door neighbor, Mrs. Firth, gave me a booklet called The Festival of Christmas: A Book of Days, written by Mary Hinderlie and Edna Hong and illustrated by Floy Dalton in 1954. Every year I would get it out at the beginning of advent to follow day by day, with activities and drawings. I was intrigued by the illustration of The Ecclesiastical Year, with the liturgical colors arranged in a wheel. I went to a Moravian church, and didn’t recall seeing such a wheel before; Mrs. Firth went to an Anglican church, which likely had more in the way of liturgy and symbolism.
In my usual librarian way, I wanted to know more about the authors, and was surprised by what I found. Mary Hinderlie( 1914-2003) was a Lutheran lay theologian and missionary who spent 3 years in a Japanese POW camp during WWII, with her husband and baby daughter. Mary and her husband Carroll organized theological and political discussions among their fellow inmates to keep spirits up. Edna Hong, was also Lutheran, and she and her husband Howard Hong, were passionate about the works of Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard(someone who I was also drawn to), and became the foremost translators of his work into English. Floy Ann Dalton is a cipher though, with only a reference to her as an “Illustrator for Hire” which sounds much too utilitarian for someone who did these lively drawings.
I enjoyed the illustrations with their quick lines, and the pages in pale green and the type in dark green or red. It’s where I first heard of Little Christmas Eve. The writers explain that on this night in Norway, you invite your oldest friends to sample the baking and see the “shining house of Christmas” but ask also if there is a stranger at the gates, who needs the heart warmth of the coffee and the candlelight of friendship, and being at home in the family of God. So let us look for those who need light in the darkness of winter and of a season that can bring a deluge of loneliness and grief for those missing someone they love.
Ecstatic Landscape is an apt description for this show, which features Peter Kinney, Helen Mirkil and Susan Pasquarelli and their engagement with nature, and expression of that relationship in found earth, watercolor and oil. This was my opportunity to see more work by Helen Mirkil, after her Hidden Stories show at the Montgomery County Community College Gallery. Footbridge held me with the colors, the pale violet blue sky with flashes of red, the streaks of regenerative green blue, and the footbridge emerging from the scratched lines, the human desire for connection, and passage over water.
In Spring Step, the trees mediate the sky, reaching up with their limbs, in a kind of prayer. The red orange center trunk is the heart of the painting for me, a nourishing color, and then the vibration of the dark red, blossoming into green, unfolding renewal. The color evokes what I love about the use of color in Fern Coppedge’s work, and the vocabulary of red violet, of the life blood of contemplation in nature.
As I had walked into the Borowsky Gallery, I saw the sign asking me to be mindful of the floor sculpture, and had the unexpected sight of a mandala directly in my path on the polished wood floor. Peter Kinney‘s Moon Boat Mandala is a distillation of fabulous ephemera, from sand, iridescent shell, seed pods, to the ladder of feathers leading into the glittering black, and the orange spine of the top feather making a joyful gesture of color.
Susan Pasquarelli‘s series of Mountain Contours start with the shape of specific mountain ranges, and merge into gradations of color and her spiritual regeneration through gradual change. She describes her vision of art as a part of the process of nature. I wanted to be in the midst of these mountains, where the colors gradate into light at their center.
Ecstatic Landscape runs until Sunday August 14th, 2011, at the Borowsky Gallery in the Gershman Y, 401 South Broad St., Philadelphia, PA.
Saturday it started to rain. We were at the Skippack Spring Fest, in our tent, and started gathering up my mosaics and Stratoz's stained glass. We had some twinges of anxiety, but most people seemed to be leaving their tents, and we were tired, and the tent was soggy, so we headed home. We stopped at our favorite diner, West Main, in Lansdale for pie and coffee. Seated in a booth by the window, I looked over and saw a rainbow. I joked with Stratoz that it meant God would spare our tent.
The verse from Genesis 9 is one I remember learning at church camp, from the story of Noah's ark, and God destroying the world by flood, but then putting the arc in the clouds as as sign of a covenant to never destroy all creatures by water again. This spoke to me, in the midst of being depressed as a 14 year old, flooded with sadness. The theme song of that summer was The Rainbow Connection, and even now I feel magic listening to it.
So here we were, on Saturday, looking at a rainbow, and my phone rings. The storm came through, and some tents were damaged and could we please come check to see how our tent fared. Stratoz dropped me off at home and headed back to Skippack. He called after finding it in a heap. Other tents were standing untouched but others were knocked over. I came out and together we were able to fold the frame up, and put it in the car. 5 trusses were bent or broken. Although exhausted, I felt gratitude that we were not in the tent when the storm came through, and our art wasn't in the tent either, and that we can get replacement parts. Stratoz said I was his sweetie, and that made me happy in the midst of the damage. I'm not certain what to make of the rainbow at the diner. The tent was not spared. But we were.
Jenny Hoople over at Authentic Living has a cool post on The Beauty of Imperfection–Wabi Sabi, where she describes the Japanese philosophy of the beauty of our transitory world, where everything decays, and is all the more precious for it. I’ve explored the Navajo concept of Hozho, and like Wabi Sabi, it captures much of what I love about mosaics. Jenny uses natural materials in her jewelry, knitting and other arts, and loves the accidental veins of color in stones and I resonated with her question:
I think a lot of people feel this way, but perhaps we are a minority? If we weren’t, then diamonds wouldn’t be so popular. I’m always amazed by the gems and minerals collections in museums, those rough rocks with brilliant splashes of color and interesting crystal formations. What’s even more amazing is that the perfect, cut gems draw a bigger crowd, are kept in a special dark room with lights for better viewing, and are supposed to be worth more. That is so weird.
I am part of this probable minority. I love gold smalti, the fabulous Italian chunks of glass with an exquisitely thin layer of gold sandwiched under a layer of colored glass, but I love the gold smalti “nails” even more–seconds from the factory, and are irregular, chipped, scratched, crazed leftovers. They are hard to get because the smalti factories pride themselves on making firsts.
I started the River of Life Cross without knowing it would have a river in it. I was using gold nails, with a base of aqua glass. As I pulled out the most compelling pieces, I realized that some of the gold was completely missing in places, and could flow together like a river of pure watery blue through the body of the cross. I listened to the the missing places, the imperfections and flaws, and let them shine forth in their own Wabi Sabi beauty.
This is how I imagine God seeking us in our imperfections, seeking our creativity and human loveliness in the midst of decay. What is your favorite imperfection in your world?
In my early 30’s, I was at a spiritual retreat, where I was gravitating toward anything to do with making art, and took a workshop with Suzanne Halstead(artist and offerer of creative retreats). She led us in making healing mandalas, using Judith Cornell’s book, Mandala: Luminous Symbols of Healing, tracing our hands on black paper, using white pencil crayons, covering the spectrum of intensity from a thick layer of white, to barely brushing the stillness of the black paper.
I wasn’t certain of what I knew. I was a wanderer, with the imprint of depression and an anxious heart. I had turned 30, imagining that I would have a book of poetry published by that age, but that didn’t come to be. I felt anything I accomplished after age 30 was too late, not prodigious enough. There is pressure that comes with milestone ages, and with the fear of being perpetually reminded of all that you are not. But sitting there with the sheet of paper, and the pencil in my hand, I knew light and dark. I knew my hands, as I traced them, and I loved what I could do with them.
Judith Cornell’s book is a guide to seeing our bodies as conduits of light. I love that image. At my confirmation, when I was 14, I was given a Bible verse from Matthew 5:16:
Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.
At this workshop, I was introduced to the creating of mandalas as a form of healing prayer, keeping the person in your heart as you draw, imagining the love as molecules of light, traveling through your hand and into molecules of light flowing onto the paper. I was having a hard time with prayer, with all the words in my head, with my arguments God, and to find another way to pray was a relief.
In the following year, I made a mandala for someone who was having brain surgery, for someone who was having radiation for breast cancer, and someone whose heart was breaking. These were people I cared about, people who were suffering, and I felt there was nothing I could do, and yet, I could give them this gift from my heart and hands.
This was the beginning of my mosaic mandalas, in the elemental light and dark, in prayer as art, and art as prayer.
In the mandala below, I wanted to share my heart with my friend, to offer something from my hands, something beyond my fears and inadequacy: grace.
In 2005, I spent some time with Master Career counselor Damona Sain, as I was feeling restless in my librarian world. Every inventory I took said art, art, art, and librarian was not coming up, and in fact may have been on the “make me loopy” list. I was making collages at my dining room table, and loving the world of color and pattern, but I assumed that I wasn’t an “artist”. But I started listening to the voice that said “you can make art,” and when I discovered mosaic, I knew this was my medium. The challenge was the kernel of truth in my librarian self, my attraction to research. I read 20+ books on making mosaics. The photo of the tower of books only represents books I own, not the ones I checked out of the library!
I read until I thought I would burst if I didn’t make a mosaic soon, but I was still in a holding pattern, wondering if I should read one more book. This limbo was an uncomfortable place, as I searched for everything on “doing” but remained in my head. Making the leap was the scariest part, but once I landed, I was on holy ground, feeling truly like myself. I loved the poem The Waking by Theodore Roethke when I was in high school, which captures the paradox of learning by going where we have to go:
Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.
Aptly, my first step was making pebble mosaic stepping stones, for the house Stratoz and I had just bought. I was in heaven, sorting pebbles, seeing the subtle gradations of color.
What was a first step that you took toward learning by going where I have to go?
I’ll leave you with Kurt Elling’s lovely jazz interpretation of Roethke’s poem.
When I found out that Terry Tempest Williams had written a book on mosaic, I anticipated the loveliness of a fluid writer approaching one of my favorite subjects, but I was still awed by how wonderfully she captures mosaic as an art form, and as a way to find beauty in a broken world. She begins with a quote, “The very language of tesserae tells us that this harmony is only achievable through the breaking and then rediscovery of the mosaic fragments” Natascia Festa, Nittola. Then she wrote a kind of poetry:
A mosaic is a conversation between what is broken.
A mosaic is a conversation that takes place on surfaces.
A mosaic is a conversation with light, with color, with form.
A mosaic is a conversation with time.
Tempest Williams immerses herself in mosaic, using her eyes and hands to fully experience the process, which then she expresses in her insightful words. I wrote poetry for many years, and to hear Williams bridging the distance between my love of words and my love of mosaic, is like a homecoming. She describes a conversation with one of her teachers, Marco De Luca:
De Luca explains the method. Our eyes are convex, not flat, so curved surfaces like the niche in a church provide a “place to rest our eyes.” He pauses, “I call this an embrace. In mosaics, it is in the curve that light is reflected–for me, this translates into a spiritual space.”
See an object is really about listening. He cradles his hands close to his mouth to explain. Art, by its nature, is expressive and creates this emotional reaction in the public. When my eyes are turned outward and inward at the same time, this is where I find my depth.(emphasis mine)
The public is used to figurative mosaics, representational mosaics, mosaics as paintings. He shakes his head. “I wanted to find the essential features of mosaic. I wanted to express my language of desire, making use of tesserae to express my emotions.”
I am interested in now in what my eyes can see, what my fingers can touch, what my hand can know by moving slowly across flesh, or fur, or feathers, or stone. I trust what I see. The surface of things is what we see. I trust what I touch. The surface of things is what we touch.
After learning about mosaics in Italy with teachers such as Luciana Notturni,Tempest Williams goes on to experience the mosaic transformations of Lily Yeh and the villagers in Rwanda she worked with to build a memorial at a mass grave in 2003. Lily Yeh started to work with the power of public art in 1986 Philadelphia! She brought together residents of neighborhoods in North Philadelphia to transform vacant lots and abandoned buildings with mosaic and painting, often transforming the lives of the residents as well, with the Village of the Arts and Humanities.
Beauty…comes to us with no work of our own; then leaves us prepared to undergo great labor.
Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just.
Tempest Williams includes the above quotation from Scarry, and encourages us to take courage in beauty, to turn inward and outward at the same time.