Saturday, December 31, 2011

Palimpsest:: Language - with convoluted commentary

In a previous post, I showed you the beginning of this piece, and the second unfinished part was featured here.  It has taken me quite a while, what with Christmas and other projects, but here is the final result.

 Palimpsest: Language
ingredients: vintage book cover, vintage maps, handwriting from 1930's composition book, vintage newspaper pages, vintage book cut-outs, 1950's dress pattern pieces, stamps on vintage paper, Chinese Hell notes, inkjet print, acrylic paint, acrylic gel mediums, Caran d'Ache crayons, watercolor pencils, stitching, vintage ledger paper, image transfers, brads, metal spinner, metal thingie (?), feather, pen nib
languages/alphabets: English print, English handwritten script, shorthand, Chinese, Spanish, Tibetan, Tibetan ideograms/ pictographs, cuneiform (2 Types), Mayan pictographs, English numbers/mathematics

Several of you indicated you wouldn't be bored by reading more about the concepts, symbols, and meaning of this piece, so here goes.

As I said, I started to consider the concept 'palimpsest' to my way of working, and drawing parallels between those ideas.  Palimpsest is defined by Wikipedia as "a manuscript page from a scroll or book from which the text has been scraped off and which can be used again.".  (recycling!) These manuscripts have often been disaggregated, deciphered, and used to recover important lost writings and other information.

palimpsest with Greek text of Luke  (Wikipedia)

Much of my recent collage work has incorporated a process of layering in which materials are partially scraped off to reveal parts of what's beneath. The idea of the interplay between the transparency of layers and the mystery of covering other sections has always been present in my work- probably because I so inherently see everything as connected to every other thing; I just can't seem to separate them.

Angel of the Sunrise

So, back to the language thing. (If you're not at all interested in linguistics or the human brain, skip over the next 3 paragraphs.) As I shared before, language is my business, in a sense.  As a special educator, I think a lot about ways to remediate my students' reading, writing, and spoken language deficits.  As I watch them struggle with these skills that come so naturally to many of us, I can't help but wonder how the human brain processes language, and ultimately, how language came to be in the first place.

Needless to say, the topic is too complex for me do an in-depth study.  However, I did encounter some interesting and useful ideas, foremost among them the widely-held belief that the human brain is hard-wired for language.  Many would argue that this is the one characteristic that separates humans from other animals. Thought and language appear to be inseparable- we think in words, and apparently can't think without them.  (You might be interested in watching this.)  Why some of our brains seem to be hard-wired differently (or less) than others is unclear, but calls into question that whole "nature-versus-nurture" debate; research indicates that both are involved in this case. 

As for the origin of language, no one can say for certain, because it happened so far back in prehistory that there's little evidence available.  Research into this subject continues, and perhaps someday more clues will be discovered.  I was surprised to find out, though, that preeminent linguist Noam Chomsky believes that language acquisition occurred over a short period of time as a result of a sudden gene mutation, while most other experts think it evolved slowly.  Chomsky says: 'To tell a fairy story about it, it is almost as if there was some higher primate wandering around a long time ago and some random mutation took place, maybe after some strange cosmic ray shower, and it reorganized the brain, implanting a language organ in an otherwise primate brain'. While cautioning against accepting this literally, Chomsky insists that 'it may be closer to reality than many other fairy tales that are told about evolutionary processes, including language.' (Wikipedia, Origins of Language)

This brings me to myths, folklore, and mystical stories concerning language.  There are plenty of stories about the invention of language, often imbedded within larger creation myths. What I found particularly fascinating is that the concept of the power of "the word" is basic to virtually all of the world's spiritual traditions.
"We find in the Bible the words: 'In the beginning was the word, and the word was God', and we also find that the word is light, and that when that light dawned the whole creation manifested.... It teaches that the first sign of life that manifested was the audible expression, or sound: that is the word."  - from The Power of the Word.  This same idea is echoed in the Hindu Vedas, in the Hebraic Kabbalah, in Sufism, Islam, Zoroasterism, and many more.

I normally don't like to explain the meaning and symbolism in my work to a great extent, because I believe  each viewer brings his/her own experiences and perception to the piece, constructing an individual interpretation which has meaning for them.  Please don't think that my meaning is the only one; it's simply the perspective from which I created the piece.

The idea of the invention of language and of the creative power of the WORD is embodied by this figure, who speaks the word of creation, OM, in Tibetan script.  The sweeping shape of the dress pattern piece with stitched lines coming from the figure's (other) mouth represent the sounds being put forth into the world, and reinforce the idea of something being made, or created.  The bird in symbolist art has long been seen as a messenger, due to its ability to fly to realms beyond our reach; the map within its body implies access to all parts of the world.

 This part of the piece has so many layers of print and symbols that they blend together to form almost a unified surface.  The red symbol tumbles out of the original utterance from the figure's mouth, breaking open like an egg to spill out letters and symbols.

I started on the bottom part first, before I really knew where the piece was going as a whole.  I knew it was going to be about 'palimpsest' and 'language', but beyond that, my idea had yet to gel.  I was hoping that it would reveal itself as I proceeded.  After scratching and scraping and rubbing paint into the surface, I cut the book cloth and ripped a big hunk of it off, then stuck part of an old piece into the hole (yes, 'hunk', 'hole', and 'stuck' are the correct technical terms).  I glued things on, ripped things off, scraped, peeled, and transferred.  I did lots of this for a long time, and can't really remember what came first, next, or before.  It was very therapeutic!

Some of the first things I glued on were from a girl's high school composition notebook, circa 1931, that I bought at a used book store.  The girl, Margaret Duncan, was apparently quite fascinated with the newly discovered "Life of Our Lord" by Charles Dickens, which had just been published for the first time as a result of the death of Dickens' last surviving family member.  As each section was published in the Lexington Herald Leader, she cut it out and glued it over her own compositions.

I was more interested in her writing than in the newspaper clippings, so I started pulling them apart in places where there was no glue. 

By accident, on the back of one part of the Charles Dickens story, I uncovered an article about the execution of someone from the Dillinger Gang, which you can see in this detail.  In another section, there was an article about the possible repeal of prohibition!  As I scraped and uncovered and dug down into these old books and writings, I felt at times that I was time-traveling- it was really the oddest feeling.  And so it seems fitting, I guess, that I finally finish this on the last day of this year.

I hope you've enjoyed my long and winding explanation, or, at least, that you didn't die of boredom.  Happy New Year, my dear friends!  Happy New Year, Margaret, wherever you are!   Please give my regards to Mr. Dickens, and to the Dillinger Gang.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Scary Christmas to Me

Christmas can be a bit scary.  I don't just mean the whole "getting-the-house-cleaned-&-decorated-(omg- where did we put those ornaments?)-&-buying-presents-&-wrapping-presents-&-making-food-&-no-way-will-I-get-all-this-done-in-time" thing.  No.  My Christmas is even scarier than that.

"What could possibly be scarier than that?" you may ask in astonished skepticism. OK. I'll show you.  Be ready to hide your eyes.  It's-

a blank canvas.  This simple white rectangle has struck cold fear into the hearts of artists for centuries, and I am no exception.  The fact that I hadn't done this type of work in- oh, let's see- since I got my BFA in 1993- served to increase the degree of terror by a factor of about- well, a lot.

But I forged ahead, because, you know- it's Christmas.  My baby (my daughter, who, by virtue of being my youngest, will always be my baby) had expressed to me that she wanted a painting of a big, red, 'abstract-ish' flower to set on her living room mantle.  I chose one of my red amaryllis photos, and cropped it to make an interesting (or so I hoped) composition. 

the original photo

I sketched the composition onto the canvas, bought paint, got out the brushes, took a deep breath, and began.

At the end of the second day (sorry, I forgot to photograph the first day), I was surprised at how far I'd progressed, and was feeling pretty pleased with myself.  I guess it's sort of like riding a bike; it all comes back to you...

...or not.  At the end of the third day, it seemed I hadn't gotten much done at all, compared to day two.  What the heck happened?  Well, I was suffering from a respiratory infection, and it could be that I spent more time blowing my nose than painting.  Sure, that must be it, right?

The fourth day was a nine hour painting marathon; I could hardly believe it when I finally checked the time and found it was 4:00.  I'd started at 8:00 that morning, and after being surprised by the time, I painted for another hour.  At that point, I felt it was approaching the way I had envisioned it. What bothered me was the first part I had worked on- the big flower at the top left, which now seemed too flat and too orange.  The stamens/anthers were also a problem; I couldn't decide if they needed to be brought out more, moved, or what.  Two days to Christmas and counting.

The next day I resolved most of the issues.  I repainted the left flower almost entirely, including the stamens, which I moved over toward the right.  I repainted the background for at least the twelfth time, and decided to call it finished.  Here is the final version. For whatever reason, the background color looks weird in this photo, but otherwise it's pretty accurate. 

But then, my final, and biggest fear reared its ugly head:  What if she didn't like it?  Of course she would never tell me; she'd just live a tortured life with this horrible thing on her mantle.  What was I thinking?  The painting really wasn't abstract at all- my own personal style had taken over without me even knowing it!

It was Christmas Eve, so I resisted the temptation to re-paint the whole thing (yes, that insane thought did actually cross my mind), and decided to wait for her reaction before freaking out completely. (Yes, I can hear you all laughing right now...) 

She loved it!  She said she liked it because she could tell I painted it- it was my "style".  Do you think she meant it?  Maybe she just didn't want to hurt my feelings...

OK, now for an abrupt change of subject... I hope you've been reading Seth Apter's online collaborative project "The Pulse" on his blog The Altered Page.  Part three, "Master Class", is now underway, and my answer to the question, 'If you could take a class from one artist from anytime in history, including the present, who would it be and why?' is featured on the Christmas day post.  Please click on the link above or the image below to check it out!

Merry Christmas and a wonderful holiday season to you all, my dear friends.  May you be blessed by true peace and joy.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Brighter Day

It's December now, and our weather is beginning to take on a darker mood- a cold, dreary, gray sameness...

... that seems to hover over us through much of the winter.  John Updike describes it pretty well:

The days are short,
  The sun a spark
Hung thin between
  The dark and dark.

Such a cheery guy, right?  Well, maybe that's a bit overly gloomy; but anyway, on days like this, my mind tends to dwell in brighter places.

 I dream of meandering down the Kinniconick on a bright warm day...

 ...walking down to the place where I sometimes cross over to the island...

 ...hearing the crickle-crackle of the shale as thin layers snap under my feet.

If the creek is up, and running fast,

I'll never get across the slippery sandstones without bruising my behind, and getting very wet besides...

So I'll go back to where it's safer (though still pretty wet)- the point where water flows out of the swirl-hole. That's our "beach" on the left, and the island on the right.

Here's a view looking back at our little "beach" from the island.

Standing on the island, where it curves around the swirl-hole...

I gaze across the wide expanse of shimmering green reflections...

... to the tip of the island, which divides the swirl-hole from the other side of the creek.

My little "mental trip" is turning out to be longer than I expected, so it seems I'll have to continue it in another post.  I'm feeling much better now, though- aren't you?