Behind the Scenes: Phalanges

Introducing something new! For now, I’m calling these “Phalanges”…I often work with mixed media and found objects – recycled artwork, packaging, various papers, and more. These are small (3″ x 3”), unfinished mixed media collages. I set aside 10 to give away at February’s Art Attack, and I’ll do it again in March.

Pick your favorite, and write your name, mailing address and email on the back. When I finish the collage in the coming days, I’ll mail it to you! If you’d prefer your collage to arrive in a frame, I can do that for $25.

PS: your contact information won’t be shared with anyone, ever!

This project grew out of my experience with a significant injury to my right (dominant) hand.

I was dismayed (understatement!) to find that the injury left me without the ability to legibly write my own name, or take the cap off of a pen or tube of paint by myself – to say nothing of everyday tasks like getting dressed, using the bathroom, and cooking my own meals on the stove.

I tried to be patient while waiting for the healing process to take hold. I tried to return to the studio and do left-handed drawings and paintings, as I’d done in art school. The thing no one told you then is that experimenting with your non-dominant hand as a warm-up is one thing, but when it’s all you have, it’s murder on your identity and sense of pride. I had to abandon those drawings because it was sending me deeper into depression. I tried making some collages, but using a blade with my left hand was scary and begging for another accident. I was unable to use scissors.

Out of sheer desperation and the need to make something (anything!), I started tearing bits of paper and old collages, whatever I had. I bought a sewing machine because shoving papers through it didn’t require any fine motor skills, or strength, or finesse. I made greeting cards with sewn collage items on the front, and on the inside, sewed a hopeful message that I’d printed out, and that I didn’t really feel. I stamped the greeting and everything else, and got away with block-printing my name. I mailed a card to just about everyone I knew. It took me about six months because I was so slow, but that’s what I had to do to stay sane.

The reaction I got was amazing. People called, and messaged me. They cried. They said I’d surprised them, and made their day. They shared stories about the first time they met me, or what they were currently dealing with. Most importantly, they said the cards meant something, that they’d brought something hopeful and special to them.

They may or may not have needed this – but I sure did.

Nobody ever gets real mail anymore…it’s email, which is great, but you can’t hold it in your hands. Or on those rare occasions when you do get mail, it’s junk (at best), or something you just don’t want to deal with (at worst). I wanted to bring a little bit of joy where it doesn’t seem to exist anymore.

So I adapted these little Phalanges that can go out in the mail and surprise a few more people. They’re fun for me to make, and I hear they’re fun to receive. I plan on continuing this sharing as long as it’s still fun for everyone.

If you’d like to receive one, message me with your address and I’ll get to work.

Moomins Moomins Everywhere

Moomins are a secret in our family, something private that only we know about, as secret as the ruby hidden on the underside of my engagement ring, on the side that hugs my finger, that no one else can see. It’s there just for us.

Except that Moomins are already a worldwide phenomenon, translated into 44 languages…though all but invisible in the US, where they remain almost totally unknown.

But with a Hollywood movie coming out soon, as well as an animated series in the works featuring Kate Winslet, the Moomin secret is about to come out of the bag.

Moomins, which are genial-looking, hippopotamus-like cartoon figures, are symbols of our honeymoon. As soon as we stepped off the airplane in Helsinki, there were Moomins wherever we looked. On posters, all over the gift shop, on books and journals. These weren’t advertisements, although I seem to recall a welcome message or public service-style announcement from the airport itself that featured Moomin. They are simply woven into the popular fabric of Finland. There was no tagline or logo to clue us in or even tell us what to call them, just the figures, because they were clearly already so well-known. We were so inundated, so immediately, that we had to figure it out right away or risk being hopelessly lost in Finland.

Seeking answers, we asked a salesperson at the airport gift shop – purveyors of dozens and dozens of said hippopotamus-type items – “Um, sorry, we’re not from here, but what are these figures?”. The hesitating answer was one word – “Moomin”, while the incredulous look she gave us said – “Dumbass”.

“Oh, Moomin. Thank you. But what are they?”

“Just…Moomin…”. Now she felt sorry for us, with no easy way to explain all that Moomin stood for in her country. We accepted that they were “just Moomin”, and carried on. Of course, I bought a Moomin journal, and we continued to see them everywhere in Finland. They remain a central ingredient and symbol of our honeymoon, confined to that time and place, with warm memories attached.

Fast forward five years, and they’re about to explode in the US. I’ll do you the favor of cluing you in ahead of time so you won’t be surprised.

Moomins are illustrations that were created in the 1940s by queer Finnish illustrator Tove Jansson. She drew anti-fascist political cartoons (Hitler and Stalin were her favorite skewers) while working for a left-wing magazine, and used the Moomin as an outlet to process anxiety over World War II, particularly the Russian bombing of Helsinki. My understanding is that they populate children’s books, but with a realistic darkness that isn’t often brought to juvenile literature; that adults also find something to love there is proven by the invitation to segue into a comic strip for a British newspaper.

Several Moomin are inspired by people from Jansson’s life: her brother, an old boyfriend. My favorite creative spark comes from the duo called Thingumy and Bob (I like their Finnish names better: Tiuhti and Viuhti), whose inspiration was Jansson’s secret, illegal relationship with a woman. (Gay relationships were forbidden by law in Finland until 1971, though they currently have one of the most progressive outlooks on LGBTQ rights). Thingumy and Bob are not hippo-shaped, by the way: picture more humanoid, less shaggy versions of the 1980s video game character Q-bert, with the bodies of elves. Thingummy and Bob are twins; they are never without each other, and are almost always seen holding hands. Like many twins, they share their own, secret language. They also share a suitcase, which is filled with only a very large ruby (remember my engagement ring!) – a symbol of their love. Their favorite places are confined ones – drawers, purses that they steal in order to sleep in, under rugs (and maybe in closets?).

Jansson met someone else, her life partner, in the 1950s, who also inspired a Moomin character. Jansson never called herself gay (remember that it was illegal for almost another 20 years). Her niece said Jansson’s secret name for being gay was “spook side” – as in, exploring her spook side, crossing over to the spook side. Jansson and her partner lived together, defying the law, even purchasing an entire island on which to be themselves, free from prying eyes.

Welcome, Moomin. You won’t be our little secret for much longer.

Cut Up Cut Out

Charles Clary, Double Diddle Daddle Bereavement Movement # 1

I have a soft spot for paper. While my hand was injured, I kept sane by sewing papers together with a sewing machine, and this show at Bellevue Art Museum, about all the ways you never thought to use cut paper, really spoke to me.

I’ve been thinking about how to expand my paintings as I move forward, and this show was certainly full of options. The piece above was one of my favorites, and gave me something to think about, as I consider adding dimension and edges to my works.

Donna Ruff, 10.28.13

It took me a few moments to realize all of Ruff’s work are front pages from The New York Times.

Simone Lourenço, My Universe, Blue

Simone Lourenço uses thread (a love of mine) along with her papers. This, along with the explosion of color and edges, was one of my favorite pieces.

Adam Feibelman, Security (detail)

More sewing here (love!), with multiple sheets of paper making a detailed whole. A true depth and elegance.

Public Art – 2nd Avenue Subway

2nd Avenue subway mosaic

I finally got to see the new 2nd Avenue subway! I’ve been waiting for this almost as long as Peggy Olson has! This would be my subway station, if I still lived in New York. It smells new, which is the oddest thing I’ve ever said or thought about the subway. New concrete. It’s airy with a glassed entrance, unlike most other stations, and it has an elevator. I wished I had more time to poke around, but I did take a short, one-stop ride.

The art in some subway stations has fascinated me for years. Here, we have mosaic tile portraits of nearly life-size New Yorkers. I was pleased to note the diversity in the depictions – various professions and demographics. The detail is great, though I prefer the whimsy of the animal and fossil mosaics in the 81st Street station on the C line.

Am I the only one – or was it weird to notice that the closest figure to this gay couple was a nurse in uniform, who was directly looking at them? That juxtaposition struck a wrong note for me because it swooped me right back to the heyday of the AIDS epidemic. Maybe that’s generational, but I still want to say “too soon”. And, I wished a lesbian couple could have been included in addition to the lone gay male couple – if the MTA needed models, we were practically right upstairs!

Nice job on a project only a century or so in the making!

Pride Project #14 – Tee Corrine

Tee Corrine (after The Cunt Coloring Book), 3 1/2" x 5"
Tee Corrine (after The Cunt Coloring Book), 3 1/2″ x 5″

Tee Corrine’s photographs depicted lesbian sexuality. She deliberately and respectfully portrayed women of all body types and sizes, disabilities, ages, and ethnicities. Perhaps her best-known work is the Cunt Coloring Book. It wasn’t uncommon for printers to refuse to work with her due to this subject matter.

Once, after a photograph was rejected with a rude critique that Corrine felt objectified her subjects by discussing a perceived age difference between them, a short hairstyle and drooping breasts, she vowed:

You fucker, I’ll make that picture famous”.

True to her word, the photo became a best-selling poster that year. Yessss.

365 Days of Art: November 11 – Calder Dies, Vietnam Vet Shoots Avedon Photo

Alexander Calder, Crinkly avec Disc Rouge, 1973
Alexander Calder, Crinkly avec Disc Rouge, 1973

November 11, 1976

Alexander Calder dies.

Richard Avedon, Generals of Daughters of the American Revolution, 1963
Richard Avedon, Generals of Daughters of the American Revolution, 1963

November 11, 1986

Ellis Nelson enters the Black Forest Inn in Minneapolis, pulls a gun from his coat, and shoots two holes in an original Richard Avedon photograph hanging on the wall. The bullets strike two the subjects of the photo, women attending a Daughters of the American Revolution convention, one in the chest, and one in the eye. Nelson surrenders and by way of explanation says: “That photo always bugged the hell out of me.”

The owner of the Black Forest Inn, who was given the photo by Avedon himself, decides not to repair it, but to leave it as a tourist attraction. He has said that: “[Folks] like to stick their fingers in the holes and take pictures.”

It may be a coincidence that Nelson, a Vietnam veteran, vandalizes the photo on Veterans’ Day.

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: August 7 – Stephen Berens Takes a Photo

Stephen Berens, July 31, 2005, Afternoon; July 19, 2005, Morning; August 8, 2005, Morning; July 29, 2005, Late Afternoon; July 25, 2005, Late Evening; August 7, 2005, Morning; July 26, 2005, Morning; August 3, 2005, Late Afternoon; August 8, 2005, Morning; August 3, 2005, Afternoon, 2013. Dye-based inkjet print, 24 × 34 in. Collection of the artist. Courtesy the artist. © Stephen Berens

August 7, 2005

Stephen Berens takes a photo from his window in Rome, which he later combines with nine other images of the exact same landscape view. The resulting photo (above), with its ten exposures, is exhibited in the 2014 Whitney Biennial and showcases Berens’ interest in process, layering, and the potential for inspiration in older work.

365 Days of Art: July 26 – Three Events About Women in the Art World: a Suicide, a Congressional Debate, and a Job Interview

Three events today, about women in the art world:

Diane Arbus, Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967

July 26, 1971

Diane Arbus commits suicide. She is a photographer, known for her black-and-white, usually head-on photos of folks that might make other folks cringe: a man in rollers and make-up, presumably half-way through his transformation to drag queen (this photo is spat on by a MoMA visitor); a giant standing with his parents in their Bronx apartment; odd-looking twins in identical dresses and headbands (this photo is the inspiration for the eerie girl-ghosts in The Shining). Arbus says she doesn’t want to be known as a photographer of “freaks” (though that’s exactly the term that is most often used to describe her work). She initially says she sees tenderness and beauty in her photos, though later she tells a friend that she hates them.

Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1974-1979, installation

July 26, 1990

Congress debates Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, in the context of monetary support to the University of District Columbia, where she had donated the installation. To absolutely no one’s surprise, California Rep. Bob Dornan in particular comes out against the feminist work, saying: “This thing is a nightmare. This is not art, it’s pornography, 3-D ceramic pornography. This disgusting dinner party…Look at this garbage.”

The final vote removes $1.6 million from the UDC budget.

Chicago says later: “That was appalling, watching that debate on C-SPAN, the quote-unquote ‘congressional debate’. ”

You can watch the debate here:

July 26, 2006

In an interview, Marcia Tucker, former curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art, founder of the New Museum of Contemporary Art, and possible former Guerrilla Girl, discusses her job interview at the Whitney:

He [President David Solinger] wanted to know if I had a boyfriend, if I intended to get married, if I intended to have a family, really amazing stuff, how old I was. At some point I just stopped him and I said:

“Let me tell you why you don’t want to hire a woman. First, no man will ever be able to work for me. Secondly we know that women can’t do budgets and third, once a month I will go crazy and nobody will be able to get near me.”

And he actually laughed and he said, “Okay.”

They hired us both [she and James Monte], but they hired me for two thousand less a year, which at that time was considerable. It was rectified however because my colleague Jim was kind enough to tell me. So I went into to see my director and I said:

“This is what’s happening and you have to change it” and he said, “The budget, the budget, the budget.” And I said, “The New York Times, The New York Post, The Daily News.”

So it got changed, and those were very odd days because I was the first woman they had hired except for Margaret Mackellar the registrar, the first woman since Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney…

Q: And how do you think your choices influenced what they [the Whitney] were showing?

MT: Well I know that I had some. I know that I had some influence on the nature of the artists who were being shown. Because the Guerilla Girls actually did a kind of study and the years that I was there and especially the years that Elka [Solomon] and I were there together, the number of women and artists of color shot up dramatically and the year that I left [was dismissed], it just plummeted again.

365 Days of Art: June 5 – Felix Partz Dies of AIDS; Is Memorialized in Photo

AA Bronson, "Felix, June 5, 1994", photograph, 1994

June 5, 1994

Artist Felix Partz dies of AIDS, and his collaborator AA Bronson documents the event in a heartbreakingly grotesque photograph. This is a real photo–even if it looks staged, or like a drawing based on a photograph–that shines light on AIDS, if only because it’s so hard to wrap your head around. Bronson says:

I made this photograph of Felix a few hours after his death. He is arranged to receive visitors, and his favorite objects are gathered about him: his television remote control, his tape-recorder, and his cigarettes. Felix suffered from extreme wasting, and at the time of his death his eyes could not be closed: there was not enough flesh left on the bone.

Felix and Jorge and I [members of the Canadian artistic collaboration General Idea] lived and worked together from 1969 until 1994. This communal life ended when Jorge died of AIDS on February 3, 1994. Felix followed shortly after, on June 5, 1994…”

365 Days of Art: March 4 – Halftone Engraving Used to Print Photographs in Newspaper

The first halftone image: a shantytown on Fifth Avenue in NYC, printed in the Daily Graphic.

March 4, 1880

Halftone engraving, used to print photographic images in shades of gray, was used for the first time when the Daily Graphic was published in New York City. An editorial ran at the same time, stating:

“This process has not yet been fully developed. We are still experimenting with it. We feel confident that our experiments will, in the long run, result in success and that pictures will eventually be regularly printed…”

Prior to this point, images were limited to black and white line drawings.

365 Days of Art: January 30 – Special Five-Day Photo Exhibition Closes to Keep Works from Fading

Autochrome of Alfred Stieglitz, by Edward Steichen

January 30, 2011
A special five-day exhibition of never-before-exhibited autochrome photographs, using low-oxygen enclosures to keep them from fading, closes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Some background: what are autochromes? They’re photos made from a process that was developed in the early 20th century, transparent color images on glass that must be viewed either with a transmitted light source or by projection in a specific device. The image is made up of a silver gelatin layer, like that used in the black-and-white photography of the time, together with a color screen of minuscule potato starch grains on the glass. The potato starch grains are dyed red, green, and blue and filter the light during image capture, producing delicate color effects. The dyes used to tint the potato starch grains fade rapidly and irreversibly when exposed to light, either in the environment, or in the projection system that’s necessary to view them. This led to the Met’s policy of not exhibiting these vulnerable photographs at all.

Recent research in art conservation shows that low-oxygen environments can slow or stop deterioration of some art objects. For example, the Declaration of Independence is now displayed in a low-oxygen (anoxic) case. After experimentation with this idea, the Met displayed the photos with an anoxic case around the glass plates, for five days only.

What a treat for the art world. In this country, Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz (heavy hitters in the world of photography) were enthusiastic proponents of autochromes when the process was developed in 1907. But, this enthusiasm had a short life, and by 1910, photographers were moving on to other processes that were easier to create, handle and display. I wonder how many autochromes have been lost over the years, just by being looked at.

Here’s a very readable, illustrated, and more in-depth discussion of the autochrome process.