New work, still on the drawing board, inspired in great part by personal frustration and a general sense of impotent hopelessness.
My latest works are frequently snide, furtive symbolist comments on what I find frustrating , annoying and frequently terrifying (I wish I felt uplifted by society, but in what feels an apocalyptic age of societal decay , I do not). The silencing of dissenting or unpopular perspectives through public shaming by what is loosely referred to as “cancel culture” has for some time recalled to me the Inquisition with its spectacle of public humiliation and penance through the ceremonial auto-da-fé. Whereas in the 16th century there was raucous public degradation and self flagellation of the accused with their pointy headed capirotes, the damned garbed shamefully in their “shirt of flame”, the samarra sanbenito. The accused trespasser of our day, faces an even more relentlessly raucous mob, the unclean must grovel and tearfully (sincerely or not) repent publicly to the politically “woke”elite, hoping against hope to be allowed back into the fold .
I wince every time I witness yet again another sinner, who having failed to tow the party-member line, frequently trespassing ever so slightly, must quiver in isolated shame, flagellating themselves performatively to an unforgiving, intolerant mob. I question why they do that to themselves, can’t they stand by their convictions? But would I be any different if I were in their more high profile shoes?
I fear not, for even this modest post, one read by very few, is still contrary to the generally left, increasingly far left of center art world ; such a stance has me wondering if Mr. Punch will be garbing me in the flames of contrition any time soon.
Afterthought, I used the word “woke” above, I do not like that word, it is too vague, too broad a brush, it is a lazy shorthand . The attached article below explores the word, its possible ideology with more sensitivity, compassion and eloquence.
“In return, the people formerly known as “woke” need to cut it out with the witch hunts. I hope they understand by now that politics by inquisition is unsustainable. Eventually, the guillotine finds its way to you.”
The substack Journal of Free Black Thought is well worth a subscription.
Organizing photographs I came upon this forgotten (lost?) painting of Mr. Punch. I’ve loved the awful mean spirited Punch since boyhood, it is little wonder as I approach sixty that he keeps reappearing.
A newly completed work on paper, pencil and gouache expressing my confusion, dismay and anxiety concerning multiple new realities, be it social upheaval identity obsessions , pronoun hysteria , language police, climate vulnerability , and now martial aggression in Eastern Europe.
Bread and circuses, be it foolish political distractions, petty grievances and mindless entertainment seems to be what society craves most .
A year ago yesterday (30th January 2021) I read for the first time a new translation of the Quiche Maya Popol vuh by a talented poet Jemshed Khan. The manuscript appeared unexpectedly in my email inbox one morning, as I am a devoted admirer of this great creation myth (of which I’ve read multiple translations) I was eager to see how it compared- I confess I hadn’t high hopes. I soon found this manuscript to be a sensitive translation, that it would arrive so magically, so mysteriously, to me, I found enchanting – the old gods seemed at play.
From the first reading it was obvious to me that Khan shared my passion for this great work, weaving his own poetic voice within the tapestry of ancient ancestors.
Gratitude to old gods.
The Popol vuh is clearly a Mesoamerican treasure, steeped in the rich traditions and archetypes of a particular region; however equally true, I find within its twisting liminal wordplay, universal themes that I believe many can (and do) identify with: betrayal, wonder, fear, bravery, parental concern, tragic loss, sorrow, redemption, ultimately rebirth…and concerning the impish daemons of Xibalba, prankish, school-boy humor.
Though this epic work found its expression in the pre-Conquest consciousness of the Maya people, the shape shifting artistry of this great culture undeniably awakened in the Quiche-fluent Spanish friar Francisco Ximenez (the original Popol vuh translator) familiar associations (much within the text resonates with Christian archetypes: virgin births, ritual sacrifice, resurrection and redemption) . As the Mesoamerican scholars Mary Miller and Karl Taub attest in their indispensable An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya :
In the Classic Maya area, the complexity of the hieroglyphic inscriptions is entirely matched by the attendant iconography, the texts and the pictorial images conveying different qualities of information. Unlike the specificity of writing , the power of Mesoamerican iconography lies in its subtle ambiguity and ability to express different levels of meaning. In a single scene , a richly costumed king can be regarded as a diety impersonator , an actual god, or both. In terms of metaphoric expression , the iconography comes alive. Lightening can appear as a burning serpent, blood as writhing snakes or gouts sprouting sweet flowers, and a mature maize ear as a human head awaiting decapitation from the stalk. (pg.32)
My desire, once I committed to a collaboration, in designing the following plates, was to convey this “subtle ambiguity”, desiring as well that my iconography equally “comes alive” with curious meaning .
In approaching a work so rooted in the Maya people’s culture and identity I naturally tread cautiously and hopefully I convey the respect I have for this masterpiece. I did not resort to Mesomaerican archetypes , such indigenous iconography, while clearly inspirational, didn’t feel appropriate for my use. As one of mixed European heritage I felt haven’t the natural right to directly appropriate such rich material;I instead wanted to express my desire to create a mythical, timeless space of my own imaginings (as much of this epic is set in the underworld kingdom of Xibalba, this was done with relative ease).
This self imposed stylistic restraint is not an original concept , that titan of Mexican mural painting, the great José Clemente Orozco placed upon his own work similar restrictions (though I would argue he had more liberty to “loot” than I do). In Neil Baldwin’s Legends of the Plumed Serpent: Biography of a Mexican God” Orozco is quoted as expressing similar intentions:
Deliberately, unlike Diego Rivera at the Palacio Nacional three years early, Orozco will not draw so directly upon “aboriginal traditions”. It is time , rather for a “new cycle”, he says, and to forego “looting indigenous remains…however picturesque and interesting they may be”.
My desire in addition to creating a dream space is to explore perception, the images that float before our mind’s eye when told an unfamiliar story. I turn immediately, instinctively to Durer’s rhinoceros, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dürer%27s_Rhinoceros
a fascinating example of perception misaligned with reality; Dürer, an artistic genius able to convey with great sensitivity and seeming ease the world about him, however clearly had never stumbled upon an actual rhino. He instead seems to cobble together a bull with an armored tank, sketching I imagine what had been described to him. It is this disconnect of perception with “reality” that I had hoped to convey, my stratagem was in pretending that I had no knowledge of the Maya people and their incredible artistic accomplishments, instead, listening as if for the first time to this grand epic we call the Popol vuh. Populating this fascinating narrative with ambiguous, mythical, vaguely familiar figures; my conceit was imagining a 16th century European court sitting entranced by this exotic tale from a far-off land and in their imagination the Hero Twins possess the brawn of Herakles, the Xibalban princess is sister to a tower bound damsel and the Maize God so obviously the brother to Christ (or at least the Baptist).
That is the intention of this collection of illuminations , an outward expression of my appreciation for the Popol vuh, for we hear in these unfamiliar stories, from unfamiliar lands, the familiar. The Popol vuh, like the creation stories of the Classical world and of our Northern kin, speak of universal truths, naturally touching the hearts of all who stumble upon them, providing inspiration to so many.
“There is devil within each of us but it depends on us whether they are to be nourished or detained within. Burn your devil side into ashes on the holy fire of Samhain. Have a great Samhain celebration today.”
“Let us remove negative thoughts from the depth of our souls on this day of Samhain. Celebrate the evening with people you love and God shall give you a great year ahead.”
Such are the frequently perky suggestions for Samhain greetings I encountered online (link: https://www.virtualedge.org/happy-samhain-greetings/). Being an American, the Celtic tradition of Samhain feels like an affectation, one I feel self conscious in expressing. Yet a day (evening actually )honoring thinned veils of consciousness, liminal possibilities , new beginnings and fairy folk is pretty difficult to resist.
Translated from Spanish, my late mother-in-law Elisa would frequently chastise those inclined to fretting to “not paint the devil on the wall”. Being a well practiced fretter AND a painter of devils, it seemed a particularly pointed and relevant admonition.
I am behind a veil of my own at the moment, not so much straight up depression , but one concerning purpose, direction and uncertainty. I’m 59, an ungainly number , lacking the elegant roundness of 60, and in this awkward time of life I keenly sense not knowing what lies ahead. We purchased a home in Chicago, a lovely between-the-wars apartment on Lake Shore Drive, very handsome and its care and renovation has been my primary focus. But that domestic fussing is coming to an end and in putting down the big brushes of home redecoration I am having difficulty picking up the smaller brushes of personal expression.
My Chicago studio, the workroom is what I am calling it, is quite small, the former maid’s quarter, and that smallness has had an impact psychologically. I once painted vast ceiling murals, in hindsight astonishing physical accomplishments. The nuts and bolts of climbing 30 plus feet in the air, on rickety scaffolding, single handedly painting , with such confidence, recalls pride and admiration for a younger braver person…it also saddens me knowing that chapter is closed. I could not I fear, at this stage, climb to such heights and frankly I wouldn’t want to. Decorative painting was grueling , frequently underpaid, unappreciated work, nearly all of my work has been painted over, much of it painted pre-I phone, undocumented. Memories, many of them bittersweet.
I now, contrary to Elisa’s scolding, paint devils, on canvas and panel, stitched up, carved into lino, sketched into notebooks. Devils and hobgoblins galore as some recent workroom snaps attest.
Currently at work on illustrating the Maya creation myth Popol Vuh , I am happily occupied but my wonder at this point is what’s next? Paintings, of course but drawings , pencil work on paper really holds my attention, stitching as well, bringing the greatest satisfaction…and yet oddly, foolishly perhaps , I feel that to be inadequate , insufficient.
Ponderings, naval gazing, trying to put self consciousness aside, at nearly sixty I struggle like a sixteen year old with self doubt.
Good news , some sales, my skull The Eternal Cycle, now on an international exhibition tour, has sold, and when the traveling show ends, will have a permanent home, that is quite gratifying.
Also gratifying is the fact that my oil painting Genesis has also found a collector.
Another bit of happy news was a satisfying conversation with an artist Richard Bledsoe at Remodern Review, who I admire a great deal and is unafraid to ask the tough and challenging questions others more timid, less confident, fear to ask.
These are early morning musings and I must at this point get on with day as Dawn reaches out her less than rose tinted fingers across the Los Angeles skyline (visible from my dining table). Nonetheless , a little more personal clarity gained upon reflection ; sending out good wishes, open horizons and lifted veils of doubt.
Belated happy Halloween, a solemn All Souls Day and a spirit filled Samhain.
A reading from the Book of the Apocalypse 12:7-12ab
Now war broke out in heaven, when Michael with his angels attacked the dragon. The dragon fought back with his angels, but they were defeated and driven out of heaven. The great dragon, the primeval serpent, known as the devil or Satan, who had deceived all the world, was hurled down to the earth and his angels were hurled down with him. Then I heard a voice shout from heaven,
“Victory and power and empire for ever have been won by our God, and all authority for his Christ, now that the persecutor, who accused our brothers day and night before our God, has been brought down. They have triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the witness of their martyrdom, because even in the face of death they would not cling to life. Let the heavens rejoice and all who live there.”
If I am to boast, then let me boast of my feebleness.
Second letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians, 11:30
This period of lockdown isolation , which seems to be lifting, has been a gift of reflection. Previously, romantically , I had pined for the hermitage, this last year or so has provided it, albeit without the verdure of the forest or the harsh nobility of the desert . But in this virtual hermitage I’ve spent a great deal of time reflecting upon what I spend a great deal of time doing, studio work.
The question that arises is why?, for what purpose?
I put in many, many studio hours, in part because I am a slow painter, given to fastidiousness , I have a fascination with early Renaissance panel paintings and that lapidary finish and attention to detail takes time. But also, I just enjoy painting, hours fly by, we arrive to the studio in the morning and before I know it, David is finishing up with his last patient (we share a suite),telling me its time to go home.
This of course is a gift, one I am very grateful for, many artists balance children, conventional work and studio time; I have the great privilege to focus solely on my work (in between walking Miss Viola). But increasingly I feel alone in this pursuit. I make thousands of marks, pencil scratches, oily brushstrokes, fussing over lines and shading that most likely will be seen by no other eyes than my own. I do post my work on social media and I have a warm if limited circle of supportive friends cheering me on, but realistically, given the sheer volume of work being produced in the universe, the likelihood of my work, the fruit of much labor and contemplation , will be seen by a very few.
The humbling truth is my work is very personal, difficult to “read”, unabashedly Eurocentric and out of sync with contemporary taste. It hasn’t the popular accessibility so desired, so “liked”; it isn’t timely ; it isn’t “identity” based, I actively avoid contemporary issues ; it doesn’t play well with other more agreeable works; and as I have often been told, it is just “odd”. I frequently wonder if it is even good. I don’t know , I am too close to the subject to make that judgment and I am of the belief that making that decision isn’t an artist’s job. My job is to make, and making is all I care about.
Although I frequently feel a sense of isolation and being misunderstood (or worse yet, simply irrelevant) I am compelled, obsessively so (for I have no other significant pastimes ) to create work that most likely interests very few. I feel I must come to the reality that this obsession may be self indulgent. I admit I feel especially down of late, I feel out of sync with a world moving rapidly forward towards some “progressive” utopia while I cling to medieval lays, British folklore, Victorian poetry and my Catholicism.
Not exactly a winning strategy for popularity in a society enraptured with identity strife, social discord and twerking. My reaction is to retreat into my tower, tiny brushes in hand and pretend I don’t know who Cardi B is.
My thoughtful husband, knowing what I funk I have been in, sent me a podcast link concerning my beloved William Blake. Though my work has little recognizable similarities with the master, I believe there is spiritual kinship. And while I do not have Blake’s great gift in seeing angels in trees I do paint them.
This podcast which is quite good, from the Getty so the standards are high, explored Blake’s frequently willful disconnect from his society and the isolation and despair he suffered consequent from both his decisions and his society’s indifference. One shouldn’t benefit from another’s suffering, but I did find solace in this shared pain. The link below is well worth a listen:
In the end I must reckon with my own insignificance, for if even if I were to feel more broadly understood , time marches on, we live, make, regenerate, die, then the eternal cycle starts anew. I just finished listening to an Audible recording of Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund. Quite incredible, and just the themes I find so fascinating , life, art, logic ,lust, faith, death, all fully and passionately examined. While the reading was very good I now must read the novel myself, so many passages worth contemplating.
Excited to be included in this international collective, dates and venues above. A boon to my participation being some well documented images of my contribution The Eternal Cycle.
Apparently a collection of my fiber art is on display at MOAH’s (Museum of Art and History, Lancaster, CA) Summer Exhibition 2021 . Although the museum did not alert me to this fact, a thoughtful friend brought it to my attention. This video clip confirms the fact.
This Easter Sunday I find myself gathering reference material for a newly commissioned project, illustrating a new imagining of the Maya Popol vuh. The author , who I will refer to as J Khan, is a poet of great sensitivity, and while I have read a good half dozen translations of this epic creation myth, his retelling is quite evocative and compelling . The rich, visually dense language inspires me a great deal, calling to mind my own layering of esoteric ambiguity. We both, artist and poet ,share a great love for William Blake, and though Blake’s imaginative, frequently Christian, Romanticism may seem worlds away from this Mesoamerican pre-Christian narrative , the liminal, otherworldly qualities they both share make the association seem obvious to us both.
With that spirit in mind, I’ve begun the process of illuminating each verse, chapter header, not sure what the correct poetic term is , but the heading after each break will receive an associated spot ornament .
The above is for passage A-J, concerning the grandmother of the Hero Twins and her hut :
Maiden’s Journey to Grandmother’s Hut
Heavy with twins,
I walk two days
to her hut.
I place her hands
on my belly
but no smiles
I love how the author conveys this chilly unwelcome yet at the same time there is compassion for this bitter matriarch who has endured ,for those familiar with the story, her own grave loss.
Spot illustration for U : Funerary Advice evokes the terror of the underworld, yet also evokes the buffoonery of the Lords of Xibalba (the Underworld).
The Lords pulled our smoking corpses
from the fire pit and laid us on the ground.
Xibalbans whistled and shouted,
danced around us as we lay dead.
The buffoonery of these nitwit demons is both horrifying and hilarious.
Of feathered serpents, “roaring blood and stacking skulls”; of awe and wonder that one finds in visiting these ancient sites.
Of brujas (witches) and uncertain wanderings.
I am wary of stepping,
of slipping on this unkiltered hill
pricked with burrows and bones,
glinting obsidian and reeking death.
Lastly, my latest, plate K-X.
Gifts at the House of Darkness
By firelight they lead us to the House of Darkness. The messenger of One Death offers us a torch and two cigars against the black night inside. “These gifts from my Lord,” he says, “must be returned at dawn unconsumed.”
My brother sets a scarlet feather atop the torch, pins bright fireflies to the cigars. The night watchman surely sees: in the house a torch burns, two embers glow. The Lords of Xibalba chortle at this news thinking that by dawn their gifts will be ash.
In the morning we step from the house, hand One Death his two fresh cigars and unlit torch. That rattles the Lords. Red-faced, they decide amongst themselves
that we must be finished off. “Boys,” they say, “bring your belongings, we will settle this score in a game of Ball.”
I’ve explored the Popol vuh previously , I am pretty well acquainted with the Hero Twins, the sacrificed Maize gods, the foolish lords of the Xibalba (a few examples follow below) but working with a dedicated collaborator, one who treasures these stories as deeply as I do is a real treat. I can’t begin to explain what a pleasure it is to need not explain each and every detail of what are for many unfamiliar (if not dreadful) tales. Instead J Khan and I find inspiration in just how universal these narratives are. While integral to the rich traditions of Maya culture, we outside that culture can sense an element of the universal in these very human tales of bravery, fortitude, honor and redemption; the Popol vuh possesses all the wisdom and inspiration one finds in the more familiar mythologies of the Classical world.
This project is only in its most nascent state but I am really looking forward to seeing how it developed. For now, some work from the past.
The painting above was a bit long in the making, inspired back in October by a beautiful painting I so admired at the Art Institute of Chicago (link below) ; I knew I wanted to make a painting as visual arresting and as rich in allegorical detail.
As is so often the case concerning my work, I employ traditionally recognized allegorical symbols with a visual language of my own invention- frequently blurring the lines between the two to such a point that even I fail to comprehend them. I simply go into an automatic mode in painting , and then after the paint has dried, attempt to understand my own intention.
My fascination with narrative painting is frequently out of step with contemporary taste, more in keeping with 19th century norms, especially the intentions of the Pre-Raphealites, who, according to D.S.R. Welland’s The Pre-Raphaelites in Literature and Art (1953):”Their insistence on every picture telling a story was the first step towards the affiliation of painting and literature…”. That pretty much sums up my own aim.
Welland goes on to explain how the Pre-Raphealites created subtle “inventions”, highly esoteric images imbued and embedded into the painting with meaning elusive to the less informed public but to fellow Pre-Raphealites were capable of being “read”. As Ruskin points out (in discussing Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience) that every subtle detail “if rightly read” can in fact accurately reveal the “story in it”. This blending of literature and the visual arts first led me to love the Brotherhood (especially the latter Burne Jones and company phase), and also to admire in general paintings admired for more than just their “plastic” qualities.
As I mentioned, I do not always know myself what I intend with my peculiar symbology. My poor husband David ,a wise and learned fellow and a sensitive and scholarly psychoanalyst , often simply doesn’t know what the heck to make of my paintings- leading to some hurt feelings on my part.
Fortunately I have a dear friend Sarah Parvin who possess such exquisite sensitivity towards art and art making (check out her Pinterest page The Curious One ,it is a treasure trove), fortunatefor me, she can in fact, and does, “read” my “inventions” with the greatest fluency. The following is from my recent Facebook post, where after having posted this hard won painting, I received very little in commentary -good or bad. For a painting which you’ve imbued with such heart, silence which reads as indifference, causes no small amount of anguish. Sarah’s comments however were a balm to that anguish:
“I have spent the last few days looking at this painting, as you have given me much to wonder about in the magic circle of creation where artist and beholder meet. As an artist, you are never afraid to tackle both the sacred and the profane, but I will admit to being pleasantly surprised by the feeling of high romance that is blossoming in this painting. I am reminded of all that influences you in the art of Victorian and Edwardian Britain, although seen through your own visionary lens.
During this time of pandemic, I find much symbolism in Saint George exhausted from battling a terrible foe, as others helplessly watch, or choose not to look, whilst both death and the maiden wait close by. When I went searching for the medieval symbolism of your Field of Gold filled with glorious yellow roses and humble turnips, I found that Dante makes the best-known use of a gold rose as a Christian symbol in ‘Paradise’, seeing the whole of heaven as an infinite Eternal rose. The predominance of the rose as a symbol of divine love is evidenced by the many miracles that roses have played a part in which are far too numerous to mention here. A golden rose blessed by the Pope was offered as thanks to important friends of the Roman Catholic Church on the fourth Sunday in Lent, a day still known as Rose Sunday, whilst yellow roses denoted Christ’s majesty after the Resurrection, which was believed to be expressed in the flower’s fragrance. In sharp contrast, the turnip in medieval thought represented poverty, peasants, flatulence, foul smells and the greed and the vanities of the material world. In a year where we have shared a collective experience of a deadly enemy, where both the best and worst of humankind has thrived, I cannot help but view your Saint George and the Dragon as an allegory for our times.
In the UK we remain confined to our homes and neighbourhoods until after Easter, so I am intending to aim my sights towards your castle in the sky. In my wondering and wandering across your strangely verdant battlefield may I find the grace of renewal and I hope, on arrival, what will await me are better days.“
An artist really can’t ask for more.
So with thoseencouraging words ringing in my ear, I post further details of my “inventions”.
I will close for now, but given that it is Palm Sunday, I will close this journal post with today’s drawing honoring Christ’s triumphant ,yet fleetingly so, entrance into Jerusalem. Perhaps a few of my “inventions” might be “read”.
I’ve recently finished a painting truly in the round, a fanciful forest-scape depicting a hermit, naturally enough, reflecting upon his mortality , painted upon a life sized plastic skull.
Let me tell you , painting in the round with some degree of detail is no simple task.
For this “painting” I have focused upon the memento mori theme, the endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth; hermits and Holy Fools and Death Angels populate this fertile sylvan scene.
I’ve crammed the narrative upon every surface of the skull, deliberately treating the surface not as a figure in the round but as a flat surface, allowing the surface narrative to meander as life itself.
My intention with the piece was to create an object of reflection , to be handled and meditated upon; a bauble for a wunderkammer.
The ultimate reveal being its base, where Life defeats Death, cradling slightly phallic Amanita muscaria toadstools.
The piece was inspired by an international art collective I was to be included in, a plastic blank skull arriving by oversea post. Initially I was excited by this joint venture, I do not collaborate generally but I was eager to see what I had hoped to be like minded folk from across the globe found inspiring in this most basic and eternal theme. Sadly, thus far, pretty tame: the usual “Steampunk” sort of treatment ; the gratuitous appropriation of traditional Oaxacan decorative arts and Posada’s Catrina; faux finishes, beads and sparkly bits . The occasional preparation of shot of a skull smoking .
Schoolyard stunts. I’m surmising Death might NOT have been pondered by my fellow artists, a theme once universally explored, now it seems too terrible to bear contemplating. Hence the pretty beadwork. I’m grateful to my neighbors here in LA with our annual Dia de los Muertos festival reminders, festive, beautiful, mindful.
But this is a theme I’ve long contemplated, making my peace with fear by walking side by side with Death, first in my youth through the AIDS crisis, and now to this day as I approach my final chapter. Never knowing when my spin of the Danse macabre will be upon me, I want to stay mindful of just how precious this miracle of Life really is.
This has lead to a large body of work reminding me time and again to be present, to be grateful , and to have a little fun with Death, making Lord Bones and Lady Skull laugh along with me.
A sample follows:
In the end I might decline the collaborative invitation, if the work doesn’t go beyond the superficial or decorative , I feel less inclined to participate . But nonetheless, grateful to reflect, brush in hand, on this great reality and chuckle a bit in the process.