We talked earlier about drawing still-lives, and I'm continuing to explore that topic, both artistically and because I seem to be drawn toward certain objects and arrangements of objects lately; I think it's because of what they represent to me. Anyway, I did a couple of pen drawings, without color, that are shown below:
They're charming, in a way...they could be illustrations...but I just didn't feel they were what I was after. They look to me...like nature morte. Like a bunch of objects.
Last night I sat down at my desk with a cup of espresso and looked again at that Mexican embroidered purse that appears in the drawing above, loving how colorful and lively it is. There was an envelope on the desk and I just started sketching really quickly on the back of it, and then added a little color. I'm so much happier with the result (at the bottom of this post): even though the drawing isn't careful or accurate, the sketch has energy, life, vigor. This is much more the direction I want to go in.
I already know this, but for some reason I seem to keep returning to the careful stuff, like a child who's afraid to let go. Some pen drawings from 2011 (below) were a step, and then the Iceland drawings went further. Maybe I need to make records of things, as a way of holding onto what feels secure. But I don't think I need to do it the old way. The work itself shows the way, but you have to keep making it, keep trying.
I like to see the artist's hand at work, feel her energy, his passion, have an idea of what interested him in the first place. The subject can be anything. The question is what comes across, what's communicated. Is there any emotion? What is it? And in the act of making the art, I want to feel all of that myself. I'm getting too old to be care about being careful, about being a Virgo who does things precisely, or makes them pretty, or needs to please anyone else. There's a definite place for that, and I can do it when I need to -- say, in sewing a dress or making a meal -- but here, I don't think that's what I'm after, or what I'm even about anymore.
What are YOU about? What helps you to find out? It can be scary stuff...but makes for a terrific journey.
After a morning at the Metropolitan Cathedral, which forms the northern side of Mexico City's huge central square, the Zócalo, I went to the Palacio Nationale, along the square's eastern side. This is the official presidential complex, and much of it is open to the public. It's been the seat of ruling power in Mexico City since the Aztec times; the palace was begun around 1520 by the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés after his conquest of the city, on the exact site where Moctezuma II lived and ruled, and incorporates much of the Aztec building material in its construction.
Here I am on the second level, having climbed the main staircase. Below is the view down into the central courtyard, where the first recorded bullfights in New Spain took place.
The proportions and elegance of the building alone would be reason enough to visit. But I was like many who come here to see something else: the huge murals by Diego Rivera which decorate the main stairwell and northeastern half of the second colonnade level. When I walked in, I really couldn't believe my eyes. The murals are much larger and more extensive than I expected, and how astounding is the story they tell.
The first set of murals are arranged in a tryptich in the main stairwell. Above, you are looking to the south.
This is the largest panel, at the top of the stairwell on the western wall. (I apologize, but there was a tremendous glare from the bright sun.) This panel tells the story of the Spanish conquest, the role of the church, the treatment of the Indians, and the Inquisition.
A detail of the upper right portion of the western wall. I think some of the best painting and composition is in this section, though every single painting was extremely impressive.
The northern panel shows the Aztec civilization before the coming of Cortes and the Spanish. A detail of the lower far right is below, showing the powerful monumentality of Rivera's figures.
Opposite, on the southern wall the mural depicts 20th century political history, the struggle of the workers, and the Revolution. The figure at the top is Karl Marx, and you can see Rivera's wife, Frida Kahlo, behind the woman in red in the bottom center.
The amount and quality of painting inthe stairwell is pretty staggering, but as you leaving it and move around the colonnade to the north, you find another series of large murals that tell the story of Mexico City, beginning with the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, built on an island in Lake Texcoco in 1325, and almost completely destroyed by the Spanish in 1521.
You can see the volcanoes that still ring the city in the distance. Rivera has been accused of glorifying the Indians; here he does acknowledge their practice of human sacrifice by showing blood on the pyramid steps. Along with everything else, the main pyramid of the Aztec city was razed and the Spanish cathedral built on the same spot, just a few steps from where I was standing. It was only in the last quarter of the 20th century when its ruins were discovered; now the Templo Mayor can be visited as an archaeological site, just to the north of this building.
The hallway murals continue, showing aspects of Aztec culture like the distillation of mescal, the collection of rubber, and the making of bark cloth.
You can see Rivera's signature in the very top center of the image above.
For the study of masterful mural-painting, I can't imagine a more brilliant place than this. Each of these hallway paintings tells a story through powerful forms, masterful composition, and perspective that leads the eye into the middle distance and into the deep space of the background. I was in awe, not only of Diego Rivera's skill, but his vision -- and for the sheer volume of his achievement on these walls, which represents only a fraction of his life's work.
It was also very moving to me to see public art like this in a presidential palace, telling a story that anyone can understand, as unvarnished as any literature. (Just imagine, for a moment, what stories a parallel work would have to include in the U.S. capitol, or the White House, and how that might change America's national narrative.)
One of the aspects of Mexico City that impressed me the most was how present its entire history was, everywhere we went, and no matter who we talked to. It is something that unites the people, and of which they all seem to be proud. While I was viewing these murals, a large school group also came, with a teacher who talked to them in front of each painting. This public art -- and these are only a small portion of the murals which decorate this city -- must play an important role in the consciousness of the people, and must also affect their whole idea not only of what art is and can be, but of who they are.
I think this is something Rivera intended to show them. After spending hours looking at the people in these murals, I walked out into the crowded streets -- and there they were.
St- Emelie-de-l'Énergie, Quebec. Pastel on paper, 13" x 9 3/4".
For those of us who live this far north, you simply have to find something to like about winter - something that makes you actually look forward to it, and that gives you the endurance to get through the last two months of it. I was born in snow country, and have spent my entire life absorbed in the rhythm of seasonal change, attuned to the micro-signals of weather and temperature. We all do that to some degree, don't we? A person from St. Lucia probably knows the moods of the sea the same way I know the different sounds of snow under my feet, or what the cold air tells me as it enters my nostrils.
But what I love most about winter, in addition to the exhilarating feeling of being outdoors on a very cold but bright day -- a feeling nothing in summer can match -- is the way it looks.
The beauty of snow, its purity, its varying texture, the way it reflects light, the way it changes a familiar landscape, the quality of shadows cast on it or light passing through it, the different sizes and tempos and patterns it takes as it falls through the air or is blown about by the wind: all these are by now deeply ingrained, and loved, in spite of any complaints I may make from time to time during a long cold winter. It would be unthinkable for me to miss an entire winter, to fly south like so many Canadian snowbirds who escape to Florida or Costa Rica when the first flurries arrive, and never return until there's green grass and daffodils.
By now, heading toward late February, I'm getting tired of it, for sure. And we too are planning a brief escape soon to someplace much warmer. A lot of the ice has melted and the snow in the city has receded; walking is pretty easy right now, and though we'll get some big wet snowfalls in March, the accumulation seems to have peaked and started to turn in the other direction. I hear there's a huge amount in Quebec City still, as there was out in the country, inspiring the picture at the top of this post. As I worked on that pastel, I thought about the blue of the shadows, how intense it is, and how deep it seems to go into the snow itself.
It's such a strange substance, snow. In the city, where it accumulates in volume, it creates an enormous problem and has to be trucked out and piled in great snow dumps, but that weighty, voluminous substance is entirely ephemeral: pick up a handful and merely breathe on it, and watch it disappear.
The first artwork of the year. Iceland again. This is the initial lay-in, first day of work.
2nd day. The scene is near the village of Hjalmsstaoaa, not far from the valley of the geysers. This rare grove of trees (I think they are probably aspens) was glowing in the late afternoon at the foot of volcanic mountains, while clouds and fog were roiling over the peaks. We had to stop the car and take photos and look at this for a while.
Here's the third stage. From here on out, it will be a matter of subtleties, pushing and pulling values forward and back, adjusting the light, subduing certain areas to help the eye move and settle. I want to work toward a more ominous feeling in the mountains, with bright light on only one area of the tree - they're all too similar now - and to subdue the foreground even more. It's also weird to look at it so greatly reduced. Here's a detail, closer to lifesize:
It's not supposed to be a postcard picture, even though it's a beautiful scene - in reality, there was a sense of foreboding, menace, and tension along with the beauty. That's not so easy to achieve, and I'm finding that using color complicates this a lot. I've been craving color -- it's pretty damned monochrome up here right now! -- but don't think this picture holds up next to the charcoal drawings of Iceland. It feels like an entirely different animal. I'll probably leave it alone for a bit now, and think.
Even though I'm having some trouble/questions with this one, it feels good to be working again. I got derailed from artwork in early December, because of Thaliad and a complex graphic design project with a tight deadline, so this is the first thing I've done for a while. Glad to be back at it!
Alpha and Omega, mixed media on paper, 14"x 18", (c) Elizabeth Adams
Natalie asked me to publish a larger photo of the image shown in the post about my former workspaces, so here is one, plus a couple of details.
I did this piece a long time ago, when I had first seen and loved the calligraphic work of Thomas Ingmire and some of his colleagues. The background texture is completely built up of layers of lettering, in ink, gouache, and perhaps diluted acrylics - I can't remember - on a background of layered washes in various media that were then distressed by sponges or even by running the paper under the tap. Linocut stamps of the alpha and omega characters were also applied randomly all over the background. The technique relies on the water-solubility of certain pigments and the resistance of others.
The text, of course, is "I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end." The large characters were done with a very large brush in sumi ink, and there are additional stamps over them in white. Some of the small lettering was done with metal-nib pens, and some (the white "I AM"s) with a semi-sharpened twig dipped in white pigment. The center of the large Omega was worked to create a luminous white glow that's more effective in real life than it is here.
This was an experiment that got more serious as I went along; unfortunately I ended up slicing two piece of paper together and the line between the two mars the appearance of the finished piece. As a digital image it could now be completely corrected - but I don't think I had that capacity at the time the piece was done.
Today I was going through old picture archives, looking for something else, when I came across a set of photographs I took of my studio spaces back in Vermont, six years ago. I must have taken them because we were starting to think about moving from that house, where we had lived for 30 years. I haven't looked at pictures of our old house very much since we moved; maybe I didn't want to, maybe I knew I needed time to replace old familiar images with new ones. Now, though, looking at these spaces again, I was surprised by my reactions.
I worked in several different rooms in that old house. The picture at the top is of a wall in what J. always called my "anti-room." It was indeed an anteroom that had been added onto the main house, over a crawl space - the pipes froze here regularly - but the pun J. was making had to do with the fact that it was a very analog space, devoid of the computers in the rest of our work area -- in this one a lot of handwork took place! This was a wall of formal calligraphy practice sheets and several experimental calligraphy pieces, created in mixed-media with multi-layered lettering, and printing, in acrylic, Chinese inks, and gouache.
This is the same room, further to the right, showing the book press and some early linocuts, and a general mess; looking at the pictures now, all I can remember is how impossible it was for me to work in such a small space with so little table space and completely inadequate storage. The calligraphic inscription on the wall is a quote from St. Francis: "Preach the Gospel always -- if necessary use words."
Below is another corner of the room, moving clockwise to the right. The sketches on the wall eventually became a large pastel that I gave to my parents. I still like that red Conté sketch, though, now that I see it here; it must be in my flat file still.
On the fourth wall I had a revolving gallery of drawings - the large portrait of my mother is on the wall of my present studio, too.
We had another building -- a garage with a large open space above that J. used for photography. On the ground floor were two other small rooms, one a woodworking shop, and the other, my painting studio and meditation room, shown below. When I saw this photograph today, I felt again the peacefulness I always enjoyed in that room. It was very much my own, and the desk looked out over the garden. The bookcase is right in front of me as I write this, and the easel and desk are here in my present studio as well. The rocking chair, which was my mother-in-law's, was sold; the Japanese cloth is folded up somewhere, as is that pretty lace curtain. The antique lamps and brackets are in a box; I haven't had a good place to put them. The Cezanne poster, faded and rolled up now, is from an extraordinary retrospective at MOMA that I saw way back in 1978 or so and still remember vividly.
I don't feel nostalgic -- our workspaces now are so much more functional, with wonderful light and much more space -- I simply remember the many hours I spent in this particular room, above, pondering life and trying to grow, feeling supported by objects that reminded me of the best parts of life, and people who were and still are dear to me. It all comes back very swiftly when I look at these photographs.
When I came across this watercolor from the late 1980s I still liked it, but had no recollection of the scene. It reminded me of twisted trees I saw last year along the coast of Florida, but I knew that couldn't be it. I studied and studied the painting, and then suddenly it came to me - these were the branches of a Siberian peaberry in our Vermont garden, and the ferns that grew underneath them. When we sat on our terrace in back of the house, you'd see this view up underneath the branches. I must have been trying to capture the energy and busy-ness I found in the mixture of foliage. Once the memory snapped into place, I was right back there.
The painting also reminded me of a recurrent dream: I am seated at the piano, or preparing to sing, but the music in front of me is a painting or picture, not a score. I have to "play" or "sing" the painting.
This watercolor looks like music to me! The rhythmic punctuation of the spiky vertical foliage at the top; the twisting branches could be chordal structures; the curving ferns a repetitive, looping pattern of melody. Last night at choir we worked for two hours on works by Stravinsky for our upcoming annual fundraising concert, November 2. We worked hard on a piece called Credo, which has a complex rhythmical structure that our director parsed for us; we went rhoguh,marking our scores, then saying the words in rhythm, then singing them. It took a lotof concentration, and it's no wonder that my mind went in that direction this morning even though the dreams were a while ago.
My bedtime reading lately has been a book called The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World's Wild Places, by Bernie Krause. Krause is a musician, recording engineer, and scientist with a PhD in bioacoustics who has spent a great deal of time making recordings in very wild places, capturing and studying their particular "sound signatures." In a lot of ways, his premise seems pretty obvious to me, and has since I was a child - of course music came from the natural world, of which we (and our voices, our talent for mimicry, and our ability to make sounds with tools) are an intrinsic part. I read the first half of the book, and skimmed the rest. Of course, Krauses' book is all about animals and the natural sounds of water, wind, and rain -- he doesn't say anything about playing or singing inspired by foliage or rocks! But visual rhythm and pattern exist everywhere, and I see no reason why they too can't be translated into sound, music, dance and movement.