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”.
However I have been in contact with the gallery and tentative plans are being made to have an actual opening. Fingers crossed I will be in Wales, a first, to see my work in what is for me its spiritual homeland.
The works accepted both deal with folk and fairy lore, deeply rooted in the Celtic imagination ; the first being Robin Goodfellow and the second being Goblin Market (inspired by the Christina Rossetti poem of the same name).
Given the possibility of the show actually going on , I need now figure out how to get these rather large works to Wales. I’ve been in conversation with the very helpful RCA staff and will be working with them through shippers here in LA. I am now researching my best options (any suggestions most welcome); making large scale works has its satisfactions but schlepping them about, particularly overseas, feels quite daunting.
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.
It was a great relief and satisfaction earlier last week when I saw four of my works , carefully packed, pull away from the storage unit (where they have languished in the dark since my 2019 solo show Fairyland at MOAH/Cedar) heading forward in the nifty MOAHmobile to the permanent collection of the Lancaster Museum of Art & History (MOAH) https://www.lancastermoah.org
With our upcoming moves, this new chapter in our lives, a new home in Chicago, the sale of our beloved Little Hermitage, renting an apartment in LA, so much needed attention, a prioritizing of intention and a matter of settling affairs. I cannot deny that I know this next chapter, the Chicago period, is most likely my last. The previous chapters have been abundant and I have had the good fortune and opportunity to be rather productive; but that productivity , particularly the works I created for Fairyland
have been larger than my domestic life can easily accommodate (not to mention collector’s).
With this realization in mind, I have been determined to get my work out there, I’ve been encouraging collectors with reduced pricing on selected works (link above in Available Work), and I also want my work to be in permanent public collections. Having had the good fortune to have a solo show at MOAH/Cedar,https://www.moahcedar.org/exhibitions-1/fairyland
MOAH seemed a natural fit. Happy to say MOAH felt the same way, for that I am grateful . When I made the initial inquiry I felt quite nervous, a bit like the goofy nerdy boy asking the pretty, most popular girl to the prom. Thankfully the pretty girl said yes.
The works included were the first two offered, The Anchorite’s Armchair (2019) and Lilith,the Mandrake (2018), the anchors to my installation Embodied: St. Anthony & the Desert of Tears:
With these works enthusiastically accepted, I was gratified that there was interest in other works as well. With that in mind , two other pieces, another textile piece and an oil painting (also created for Fairyland) were selected :
The following is from my Facebook account, a response to a Christmas posting I made featuring my adorable Pluton, Prince of Fire, Governor of the Region in Flames. The review, arriving some time post Yuletide was in response to the below, uncensored version. Initially taken aback by its frankness, now just delighted by it. Compelled to save it, share it:
“This makes the Grinch look like Little Miss Muffit . When I look at your work I ponder would Pope Francis laugh or pass out . Hug you or summon the Swiss Guard . Invite you to do a showing or send out a global ban . Praise your creativity or retire to the Vatican Archives and ask some researchers to reasearchunusual spritual conditions . Since your partner is an analyst I know your mind has been examined in every way possible known to mankind . I have to say your art shocks me every time . In a way that is often uncomfortableand I always would love to modify it … This guy makes the scariest clown seem normal . I try not to project onto your art but can’t help questioning the inspiration behind it ? It is not whimsical . It borders on deranged serial killer but I know your instincts are contained by your religious upbringing , devotion , literary development , and obsessive compulsivediscipline that this art takes . Still100 years from now :experts might be analyzing your work and hypothesizingabout core values , obsessions,all kinds of stuff . There is a whimsey . Bosch and the other classicists inspire you I guess and this is modern . I could say carnival funhouse because you are such a lovely man . But the intuitive , spiritual , wholesome part of me always gets this uncomfortable feelingabout the source that drives you . The demons . You espouse humor yet some howI feel other demons are channeling through you , using you . I would love to see the Pope’s and College of Cardinals response to your body of work in person and have the strength to accept the truth that I see .In the least everything you do evokes the unexpected . Please do not be offended by my honest response . Your work is so brutally honest that I can’t help give you a response . No imitation here . Definitelyall from you : your own genre which yet needs to be named . You are not a student of anyone : no artist proceeds you : you qualify as an ” Outsider” I believe . Completely original , self taught . Even if you are school trained : there is no previous precident for your art . I cannot tell if your art is a Cautionary tale , a Psycic eruption , Deviant , Maudlin Whimsey , a Dreamscape ? My perception of hellish must be my projection . That doesn’t seem to be your overt intent . Could be considered modern Surrealism?Or maybe you wanted to design children’s toys for Mattel and they wouldn’t hire you and here we are . I guess the purpose of art is to evoke?”
As mentioned in a previous post 2020 was by most standards a rather dreadful year. The dreadfulness obvious enough I needn’t belabor the point. Yet I worked through it, not only psychologically but in the studio. It seems, going through my photos that I painted about six paintings, stitched together a half dozen textile folk, made quite a few of my jumbo paper-dolls and my rather consistent studio practice of daily drawings filled quite a few folios- I fear quantity reigned more frequently than quality at times.
But studio wise, a rather decent year.
I’m sensing, hoping , 2021 might be better yet. I’m feeling a new chapter in my life. We’ve begun the incremental steps to relocating to Chicago, given David’s psychoanalytic practice this requires delicacy and sensitivity , not my general rash readiness to move, obstacles be damned, full steam ahead forward. But given the constraints, I sense one chapter closing and another beginning. We will be in an in-between limbo state for the next two years, my studio, his practice here in LA, we’ll be renting a small apartment in Los Angeles close to the office/studio and once our Little Hermitage has sold purchasing an apartment close to Lake Michigan. We spent the new year downtown this (last) year and feel we’ve a better sense of what feels like home.
But studio wise, I am feeling a new chapter as well. My work in Los Angeles has been frequently bold (its been called tacky) in color, admittedly outrageous at times, overtly sexual initially (its been called pornographic), and frequently a bit smirking (but never intentionally ironic). I’m now feeling an inclination towards less of that. Not sure how this will develop but in clearing out my studio, a pre-spring cleaning, I found myself eagerly tossing out many of my frankly depressing thrift store schmattas I had been using in favor of richer velvets and brocades.
Perhaps an embrace of more “serious” intention is in store for me , a growing sense of confidence, an entitlement to a personal voice, to not fearfully hide behind a smirking mask because , God forbid, I actually take myself and my work seriously. Which I do, but in spite of self doubt so fundamental to my being, I feel I am developing confidence that my voice might, can be, taken seriously and that recognition begins with me. This heretofore has been contrary to my entrenched insecurities.
All that said, a degree of humor will always be present in my work and in my personality; that is my nature as well
In the meantime I am very pleased with this interview with the Verum Ultimum gallery in Portland Oregon. I am honored to have one of my favorite paintings included in Generous Kingdom V, a diverse and exciting collection of work. A great deal of gratitude to founder, owner and curator Jennifer Gillia Cutshall. Please visit the gallery’s website for a complete virtual experience.