Happy Imbolc, Everybody!

At this time of year, I like to celebrate the arrival of longer days by sending a little something by mail. It’s a little old-school but I have this idea that people might like to receive something that has a stamp, that you can hold in your hands – and that’s not a bill.

Here’s the online version of my postcard (and if you’d like to receive the real one next year, you’re welcome to contact me with your address).

On February 1, we’re halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. In Celtic regions, this was traditionally a pagan feast day to celebrate the lengthening of the days. Literally, it is a return to the light. I love this increasing daylight on a physical level, as well as a metaphorical one. It’s wonderful to see the sun more, and to feel as though we’re all crawling out of hibernation.

Catholicism eventually coopted the day, and it became St. Brigid’s Feast Day. A patron saint of Ireland (and of beer!), she founded an art school and was quite likely a lesbian. St. Brigid’s crosses are still hung above doorways in Ireland on Imbolc to protect a house and its inhabitants.

This time of year is so full of promise. Here’s to longer days, new beginnings – and more paintings!

Met Faves

Attic white ground vase and oil flask, c. 440 BC

I was very excited to visit the Met in NYC, after a prolonged absence of nearly five years. (Since I moved, there are now two, but I’m talking about the original). This is a museum that lies on the same street as my old apartment; if you turn left out my front door and just keep walking, after about 20 minutes, you eventually end up at those famous front steps.

With limited time, I decided I wanted to visit some old favorites, but also make some new discoveries. The only goal, really, was to find works that delighted me.

Here are two gorgeous red figure/white ground Greek vases/oil flasks. I find the red pigment on the white ground to be much more delicate than the black or red figure/ground combinations. The robes actually look soft and diaphanous and the figures look kinder and softer too.

Five minutes into my visit, and I decided this was my favorite so far. But the day is young, stay tuned!

Terra Cotta Warriors

Terra Cotta general

Picturing this exhibition of 8,000 clay statues, I imagined tabletop action figures, as far as the eye could see. Toy “army men” fashioned for grown-up royalty. But what was I thinking – royalty gets the royal treatment, after all – this army, whose purpose was to guard China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, during the afterlife, was larger than life-size. Yes, these statues towered over me, at over six feet tall.

The size (and conditions) prevented more than ten warriors from traveling for this exhibition, which was just a little disappointing for me (because I love the idea of multiples), but what the exhibition lacked in quantity, it completely made up for in specificity and gravitas.

Instead of royalty playing with dolls on chessboards (or something like that, as I’d imagined) this was much closer in nature to Egyptian art of the pyramids because these warriors were actually buried with the emperor around 210 BCE.

There were several different types of warriors, including generals, cavalrymen, and archers. Their uniforms and hats were so specific. For example, archers had loosely cut pants because they needed to easily kneel and aim. Cavalrymen had specific chin straps to hold their caps on. Generals had heavy armor that left them unprotected in the back, purportedly because they were so brave and noble as not to need further protection. You could identify each warrior by their uniforms and caps, if you knew what to look for. I loved seeing the treads on the soles of the Kneeling Archer – that kind of detail almost makes me pucker up to cry.

Cavalryman’s shoes
Soles of shoes of Kneeling Archer warrior

The fabrication of this army was also fascinating to me. More than 2.4 million pounds of clay were used – incredible. It was an assembly line arrangement that ran from least to most skilled as the terra cotta was uniformly shaped and extruded for bodies and limbs, ending with skilled artists who handcrafted each unique face, down to individual hairs and features. Facial recognition software says that no two are the same.

Terra Cotta Warrior

The army was uncovered in China in the 1970s, and there’s still some mystery surrounding it. For example, there was a pit uncovered that was full of armor, made of terra cotta. Why would the warriors need suits of armor made for them, when they already had protective clothing – essentially built-in armor? And if they had needed it, why was the armor tossed into a pit all together, instead of being placed on each warrior? One theory is that these were offerings to dead comrades or dead enemies. But the explanation that I love is that it was an armory. An armory! An imaginary armory for imaginary soldiers.

This magnificent undertaking was humanized with the sobering information that the workers who made this army were almost certainly slaves who were coerced and tortured. Evidence of shackles, assorted injuries, and cuts on bones of human remains prove this.

What a show. There’s a museum in China with more warriors and presumably, more artifacts. I’d like to someday see the Acrobat figures that were in charge of entertaining the troops.

The Oak and the Cypress

The Oak and the Cypress, acrylic and mixed media on panel, 48 x 36
The Oak and the Cypress, acrylic and mixed media on panel, 48 x 36

…And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

Excerpt from “On Marriage” by Kahlil Gibran

This body of work is about being married, or in a long-term relationship.

The seeds of this painting were planted when my wife asked me to paint her some cypress trees one day, because they remind her of Italy. This painting began its life as a fairly straightforward, but boring, depiction of cypress and oak. I tried a few adjustments, but the painting needed a bigger leap, something less expected.

In researching oaks and cypress, I came across images of an illustrated manuscript from 14th century Persia. I used the original layout, more or less, including the primitive style and spatial depiction. The story concerns a prince who goes off in search of a princess with whom he’s fallen in love. In the style of an epic, he encounters many adventures, including one where the princess in question, while in disguise, challenges him to a duel. He has no idea that he’s battling his love until he wins the duel, and she reveals her identity. The quote contained within the painting is the exact caption that is displayed (in Farsi) on the original manuscript:

Defeated she removes her helmet before making up the quarrel.

Something about this moment affected me: the choice to be vulnerable, put aside whatever argument you’ve had, and take the first step to be friends again.

The title comes from a line from the Kahlil Gibran poem, “On Marriage”.

Pride Project #23 – St. Brigid

St. Brigid, Mixed media on board, 4" x 5"
St. Brigid, Mixed media on board, 4″ x 5″

St. Brigid was an early Catholic nun, (who was probably a Celtic goddess and “Christianized”; her feast day is the same as the Druid Imbolc, which celebrates spring). She founded convents all over Ireland that focused on education and art. I read somewhere that she also enjoyed beer.

She was very close with another nun named Darlughdach, who was significantly younger. They shared a bed together at the convent, and were so close that when Brigid had a vision of her upcoming death, Darlughdach prayed that she might have a simultaneous death, because she didn’t want to live without Brigid. Brigid begged her to hold on for a year, to continue Brigid’s work at the monastery, and Darlughdach died exactly one year later, to the day.

Pride Project #2: Sappho

Sappho, mixed media on board.
Sappho, mixed media on board.

A different queer person or moment every day of Pride Month. Today, Sappho!

She was a very well-admired Greek poet who lived around 600 BCE, who set her poems to lyre music that she composed herself. We get the word “lesbian” from her birthplace, the Isle of Lesbos. She was famous in her day and romanced many of the female students that were sent to her to learn the art of writing. Many of her poems were love poems, written explicitly to women. We’ve lost most of her complete poems over the years, with only fragments surviving, including some manuscripts that were torn into strips and used to wrap mummies.

Happy Pride!

New Beginnings

St. Brigid's Cross
St. Brigid’s Cross

Happy Celtic Spring! (Also known as Imbolc or St. Brigid’s Feast Day).

Today we’re halfway between the winter and spring equinoxes, and this was traditionally a pagan feast day to celebrate the lengthening of the days. That increasing daylight means a lot to me on a physical level, as well as a metaphorical one. It feels good to see the sun shining more, and to feel as though we’re all crawling out of hibernation.

Catholicism, of course, co-opted the day and it became St. Brigid’s Feast Day. I can’t object too much, since she seems pretty great. A patron saint of Ireland, she also founded an art school and was quite possibly a lesbian. St. Brigid’s crosses are still made in Ireland to celebrate the day, and are hung above doorways or windows to protect the house and its inhabitants.

This time of year is so full of promise. Here’s to longer days and new beginnings!

365 Days of Art: November 4 – King Tut’s Tomb is Discovered, Florence Flood Damages Millions of Artworks

February 17-Tut

November 4, 1922

Howard Carter discovers King Tut’s tomb.

The Basilica of Santa Croce is flooded on November 4, 1966.
The Basilica of Santa Croce is flooded on November 4, 1966.

November 4, 1966

The Arno River floods Florence, killing 113 and damaging millions of masterpieces. The scramble to deal with the sheer volume of works, as well as the race against time to avoid further damage by mold, leads to new developments in art conservation.

365 Days of Art: September 12 – Dog and Teens Discover Lascaux Cave Paintings; Nan Goldin is Born

Lascaux cave painting, circa 15,000 BC
Lascaux cave painting, circa 15,000 BC

September 12, 1940

A group of French teenagers chase their dog down a hole and accidentally discover the most awesome cave paintings of all time at Lascaux. The prehistoric paintings are at least 15,000 years old, cover the walls and ceiling, and mainly depict animals. The degree of delicacy in these 600+ paintings is stunning. We still don’t know the purpose of the paintings, but art historians believe they play a role in hunting rites over a period of many, many years.

The caves are open to the public for about 15 years but close in 1963 because of damage to the paintings. Lights fade the pigments, and visitors’ breath cause excessive condensation and algae to form on the walls, so a replica is opened nearby for tourists. Despite the installation of a special air system, black mold grows on the walls by the 1990s, and conservation attempts leave visible black patches.

Photograph by Nan Goldin
Photograph by Nan Goldin

September 12, 1953

Nan Goldin is born. Beginning in the 70s, she’s one of the first photographers to use a raw, intimate, documentary style that captures an underbelly of New York that hasn’t necessarily seen the light of day until she turns her camera on it. Goldin photographs herself and her friends in a really straightforward, sympathetic way: drag queens putting on makeup, couples laying in bed, fairly seedy Lower East Side apartments, victims of domestic violence, AIDS patients dying in the hospital. She gives a frank, dignified voice to folks who are more or less on the fringe, and the saturated, gritty colors (red curtains, purple bruises) are almost royal.

365 Days of Art: June 6 – NYT Reviews Edward Curtis’ Photographic Book of Native American Research

Sioux Chiefs, by Edward Curtis

June 6, 1908

The New York Times publishes a review of Edward Curtis’ first volume of research on all the Native American tribes in the United States, including photographs. An excerpt:

Nothing like it has ever before been attempted for any people. He has made text and pictures interpret each other and both together present a more vivid, faithful and comprehensive view of the North American Indian as he is to-day than has ever been made before or can possibly be made again…In artistic value the photogravures are worthy of very great praise. They are beautiful reproductions of photographs that in themselves are works of art…And when it is all finished it will be a monumental work, marvelous for the unstinted care and labor and pains that have gone into the making, remarkable for the beauty of its final embodiment, and highly important because of its historical and ethnographic value”.

365 Days of Art: April 30 – Chinese Pilgrim Describes Now-Destroyed Bamiyan Buddhas

Bamiyna Buddha (now destroyed)

April 30, 630

A Chinese Buddhist pilgrim by the name of Xuanzang visits the Bamiynan Buddhas and notes that the area contains “more than ten monasteries and more than a thousand monks”. He also noted that the two giant Buddha statues were “decorated with gold and fine jewels”.

You can read more about the destruction of the Buddhas by the Taliban here, and the subsequent discovery of caves and cave paintings behind them here.

365 Days of Art: April 22 – Scientists Announce Discovery of World’s Oldest Oil Paintings

April 22, 2008

Scientists announce they have proved the world’s first-ever oil paintings were made in caves that were discovered behind, and after the destruction of, two giant statues of Buddha in Afghanistan.

Ironically, the dynamiting of the statues by the Taliban in 2001 revealed the caves and art behind them.

Scientists discovered that paintings in 12 of the 50 caves were created using oil paints, possibly from walnut or poppy. Samples from paintings date them from the 7th century AD, which is hundreds of years before oil paint was used in Europe.

It wasn’t until the 13th century that oil was first added to paints in Europe, and it wasn’t commonly used there until the early 15th century.

This is the earliest clear example of oil paintings in the world, although drying oils were already used by ancient Romans and Egyptians, but only as medicines and cosmetics,” said Yoko Taniguchi, leader of the team of scientists.

Bamiyan was once a thriving Buddhist center, a stop on the Silk Road trade route between China and the West. Monks lived in the caves carved into the cliffs by the two statues. The cave paintings were probably the work of artist-travelers on the Silk Road. The colorful paintings depict Buddhas with gorgeous crimson robes, as well as mythical creatures.

365 Days of Art: April 15 – Brunelleschi Dies, Da Vinci is Born, Nike of Samothrace is Unearthed, Impressionists Exhibit Together, and Thomas Hart Benton Reveals Himself to Be a Fool (Again)

April 15, 1446

Filippo Brunelleschi, father of Renaissance architecture and engineer of the Duomo, dies.

Leoonardo da Vinci, 1489

April 15, 1452

Leonardo da Vinci is born.

Nike of Samothrace, c. 190 BC, Parian marble

April 15, 1863

An excavation on the Greek island of Samothrace unearthed a winged female statue carved from white marble, known as the Nike of Samothrace, or Winged Victory of Samothrace. It’s considered one of the greatest masterpieces of antiquity, and many consider the lack of head and arms to add to its beauty. The original is dramatically displayed above the Daru staircase in the Louvre, in Paris.

Samothrace is the eastern-most Greek island, located in the northeastern Aegean Sea. In ancient times, the island was home to a temple complex known as the Sanctuary of the Great Gods. I spent a good chunk of one summer working on this archaeological site.

Claude Monet, Impression: Sunrise, 1873

April 15, 1874

The Impressionists, though they weren’t known by that name yet, hold their first exhibition. A group of about 30 French artists which included Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro and Berthe Morisot called themselves “The Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, Etc.” and displayed 165 works in Paris. Viewers thought the subjects (contemporary life) and execution (seemingly unfinished and untalented) unfit for fine art, even laughable. One art critic entitled his nasty, satirical review Exhibition of Impressionists, after Claude Monet’s painting Impression: Sunrise, 1873. The critic, Louis Leroy, meant it as an insult, but it eventually became their identity.

Over the course of the month-long exhibition, 3500 ppl came to see it, many of them to express their outrage at this new art form. People always get shocked by new things; even the Impressionists were once considered too edgy.

Poker Night (from A Streetcar Named Desire), Thomas Hart Benton, 1948

April 15, 1941

The New York World-Telegram runs an interview with the always-thoughtful and eloquent Thomas Hart Benton. Here is his monologue:

Do you want to know what’s the matter with the art business in America?…It’s the third sex [gay people] and the museums. Even in Missouri we’re full of ’em. We’ve had an immigration out there. And the old ladies who’ve gotten so old that no man will look at ’em think that these pretty boys will do. Our museums are full of ballet dancers, retired businessmen, and boys from the Fogg Institute at Harvard, where they train museum directors and art artists. [The typical museum is] run by a pretty boy with delicate wrists and a swing in his gait. If it were left to me, I wouldn’t have any museums. I’d have people buy the paintings and hang ’em in privies or anywhere anybody had time to look at ’em. Nobody looks at ’em in museums. Nobody goes to museums. I’d like to sell mine to saloons, bawdyhouses, Kiwanis and Rotary clubs, and Chambers of Commerce–even women’s clubs.