Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Angels for You - Happy Holidays!

Angels seem a little more real, a little closer to us at this time of year. And don't we need a few more angels in this tattered world, guarding us and keeping the peace? Some of you have asked about the origin of the angel on my Peace Card so I thought I'd share that one and a few other favorites as a way to spread wishes for peace and good feelings.
Angels are not only a Christian thing, as many believe. The idea goes way back, about 5500 years, to the early peoples of the Near East who first organized religion into rituals, rites, and identifiable deities. As in most religion, they placed their gods and goddesses in the heavens, and with irrefutable logic identified birds as messengers - winged go-betweens at home in both the earthly realm of humans and the divine realm of the gods. I think you'll agree that it's not a far distance from there to the fabulous winged panoply of gorgeous creatures flying around in the clouds, carrying harps and singing their hearts out. There are angels in the Jewish and Islamic tradition as well as the Christian, though thanks to the Christian emphasis on images, most of the angels we know and love come from Christian art. And angels are not only sweetness and light, either - the Archangel Michael carries a big sword and has a temper - he's the one who drove Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden. In this painting by Perugino, however, his sweet soft face and pretty polished armor belies the tough reputation. His fellow archangel Gabriel, by contrast, is the 'Good News' angel - here he is in a detail from Simone Martini's wonderful annunciation bringing surprising tidings to a young woman named Mary. Fra Angelico (the inspiration for my card) is the go-to guy for angels - no one does them better. All my best wishes for a happy and peaceful holiday season - may you have an angel always at your side.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Past comes close to Home

Preparing my own work for a couple of shows has kept me busy lately - good work, good shows, but it's kept me from writing here. To catch up, I'll start with the past. Ruins of late great civilizations are everywhere. Romantic artists and poets loved ruined abbeys, dismantled temples of Ancient Rome, columns and half walls sticking up through the sand or vines for evocative soul-stirring associations with shunted human ambition and poignant death. Shakespeare's 73rd sonnet calls to mind the same tug of romance and futility with an architectural metaphor.
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang

But all these ruins are elsewhere, right? Europe, Rome, Sicily, Africa, Central and South America: the closest we here in the US come is the Southwest, with the spectacular cliff houses of the Anasazi? Today, though, thanks to Yahoo and several intrepid photographers with an eye for unusual beauty, the US enters the Pantheon of great ruins. Here, via the link below, is a look at ruins all too close to home. These poignant photos tell of an America that we can now only know from books and our grandparents' stories, of thriving industrial cities in the heartland, churning out vast quantities of widgets or whatever, building strong prosperous communities on an infrastructure of faith and thriving capitalism. It is a bit of a shock to see so clearly the evidence of a time and way of life that will never come again, but it is also a prompt to look ahead and not backwards for technologies and human achievement. Regretting the past is a dead end, if a searingly picturesque one. Click on this link to see the video - you don't want to miss this. Thanks to these photographers for seeing and sharing. They also have a Flickr page of still photos.

Friday, November 19, 2010

High level Handwork

The PMA Craft Show comes and goes much too fast. This spectacular show, the first and one of the best of the major high-level Craft shows, took place in Philadelphia for four days over the past weekend. I was there for two, but two days was barely enough time to see it, let alone pay close attention to all the artists and their work. So I’ll share some of my favorites.
This was a great year for jewelry. Nature is a constant inspiration for artists, but this year’s crop seemed particularly focused on natural forms, shapes, and materials.  The very first booth I stopped at was that of Roberta and David Williamson, longtime veterans of the PMA show, who make the most wonderful combinations of metals  and crystal in which they often trap images like specimens. If you look closely at the photo you can see that David and Roberta, who met in art school and have worked together successfully ever since, are wearing examples of their creations. I was really intrigued by some of the smaller work in their cases, with antique prints and little bug drawings hanging from chains and worked into pins and rings. Christy Klug, from Austin, TX, gets one of my biggest gold stars. I really love her work, in no small part because she manages to use her jewelry as a drawing medium. In the photo you can see an egg with her calligraphic lines; next to it is an exquisite enamel pendant with a parallel form and surface – a presentation as thoughtful and striking as the work itself. One of the most unusual materials was the antler horn used by Eric Silva for brooches and pendants. He describes cutting and shaping the solid antler to give it flared edges and hollows, then polishing to bring out a beautiful patina. His pieces speak of the eternity in nature yet have fresh, contemporary style.
Of the ceramic artists in the show, I especially admired the work two of the newer exhibitors, Judit Varga from Maryland, and Nathan Falter from Missouri. Judit is one of those rare potters who appreciates the pinch pot, a relatively unsophisticated form for beginners (when I taught ceramics that was chapter one,) but in her hands a marvel of complex possibility.  Her small pod shapes grow into honeycombs of dark mystery, an effect furthered by a dark heavy clay with natural gravitas. Nathan Falter’s work, by contrast, quotes man-made forms – oil cans and funnels - tweaked by the earthy solidity of his darks and lights with a witty sprinkle of stenciled numbers and letters.
A good number of wood artists were represented, from furniture makers to turners. Janel Jacobson, from Minnesota, was kind enough to bring her tools, to let us see what she uses to make her magic – true magic – tiny, impossibly beautiful forms that recall the wit and careful artistry of Japanese netsuke.  I could hardly tear myself away from Philip Weber’s work. Philip, from Effort, PA, makes exquisite boxes of wood – boxes that are the jewels rather than what might go inside.  His oval box made of holly and ebony is a chess game of dark and light with inlays of tiny sticks of wood and metal, made so much patience and minute craftsmanship that the mind can hardly grasp what it took to bring it to reality.
             There were also plenty of fiber and textile artists, many of them showing wearable art - dresses, hats, scarves. David Fraser was one of the few hard at work in the midst of the show, working on his waxed linen weaving. His creations take many forms, including vases and tubular shapes, all of which have a vibrant, tactile energy. One of my brightest gold stars for the show goes to Renee Harris, a storyteller with color and thread. Rich, elaborate, elegant, whimsical, each of her wall pieces is a festival displaying a narrative that goes straight to the heart. I talked to Renee for quite a while – enjoying her conversation as much as her work – as she explained the process of masterful felting and embroidery, and spoke of her concerns for fish, birds, and the other marvels of nature that we humans treat so carelessly. It’s all there, in every stitch and surface, and the case is so beautifully made.
            These artists all have websites – you can easily find them with a search. Some of them will be at the Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington in April. Go if you can, and if you do, tell them you know about them from ArtSmartTalk!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Between and Beyond the Covers

You may be one of those who think that ‘The Book’ is in decline and will soon disappear from common currency, like the typewriter eraser or the dial phone. With E-readers available to deliver information, what’s the point of books? The same question, of course, was asked in the mid 1800’s, but then it was art that was in atrophy and about to disappear. Who needs painting or sculpture when you have photography? But art didn’t go anywhere, did it? Well, yes, it did, but it didn’t go AWAY. In fact it became more ART. With photography handling the mundane tasks like portraiture and recording historical events, art was free to expand beyond traditional boundaries. You know how that story goes.
Now it’s the book’s turn. Last weekend I went to the NY Art Book Fair at P.S.1, the contemporary arm of the Museum of Modern Art, and I can assure you that the book is far from over. This is not brand-new news for artist book aficionados – the first NY Art Book Fair, which is sponsored by Printed Matter, was held in 2006. And some artists have been making books for a long time, but the field is now exploding. P. S. 1 is a big space, but it was filled top-to-bottom with books, paper publications, and zines, with the artists and publishers who make them, and with a galloping crowd of fans hungry to see what’s new and exciting. So here are a few favorites: The Women’s Studio Workshop (Rosendale, N.Y.) - Sandy and Chris (in the photo) presided over a display of bright, crisply made editions, all impressive in the craftsmanship of the objects and the depth of ideas. The Thing (San Francisco) cleverly offers a periodical in the form of an object designed by an artist – one, by Jonathan Lethem, is a pair of glasses with the text written on the inside of the frame – another was a shoe with a lace bound into a blank book. Art books are thriving in Europe - a featured group from The Netherlands was there in force, along with other international presenters. The Bongoût Gallery (Berlin) and Lubok Verlag (Leipzig) had rich, exciting work on display Bongoût stood out for layered, complex, colorful imagery in large format, while Lubok showed work with masterful printmaking techniques, like the book of Faces in the photo. The beautiful range of thoughtful, well-made books from RedFoxPress, an Irish-Korean collaboration, exemplified the spirit of this art form. I liked the work of Napa Books (Finland) so much that I purchased an exquisite little flip book by one of the principals, Jenni Rope, and was interested to find out that they hold a yearly flip-book competition, with past winners from Japanese and far-flung places. Canadian book artists were also well represented, with a full room of artists and publishers, spilling over with great ideas and beautiful books of all kinds. This is a very vibrant, exciting world where artists are finding great ways to turn a familiar old technology into a leading contemporary art form.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

More than skin deep

With some good, but mostly terrifying, news after the election, I think Tattoo art is the only appropriate subject for a post. I mention my lovely old - really old - Philadelphia neighborhood sometimes, where there are lovely brick townhouses, big shady trees, the warm light of old-fashioned streetlamps, horse-drawn carriages, etc - but I'm also close to a very different world. Just down the block, on the other side of South Street, is the vibrant, heady world of Tattoo art. Just one block - but if you want a world-class tattoo this is where you need to be. The other day as I passed one of the best shops, I saw a tattoo artist making real street art - painting the sidewalk with a bright flashy design that I think is also available for  your arm or chest - or wherever. A big swooping eagle against a clear blue, with hot reds and yellows - irresistable - and masterfully done! And the artist himself was a work of art - I don't want to think about what it took to have a head of flowers like that, but it made quite a visual statement!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Buy some ART - why not?

It's a whole lot easier to buy original art than it used to be. I love galleries (most of them) but I REALLY love the fact that they now are one option for artists rather than the only game in town. And because artists are finding ways to jump the middleman and bring their work directly to you, you have more options too. I've just started putting up my art on Etsy, the online wonderland of creativity where you can wander from shop to shop, browsing handmade art and objects, most at amazingly reasonable prices. In my shop, Gregorgrace (www.etsy.com/shop/gregorgrace) you can find cards and prints with my drawings, and my handmade books. Take a look - I've just put up some new designs for the holidays! It's a real pleasure to be part of the Etsy community - I admire the ingenuity of everybody involved. Plan to spend some time - you'll find a lot to love! Leave me a comment after you visit Etsy.com telling me about favorite things you found! Another, even more direct way to encounter art and artists is to go to their natural habitat - their studios. Open Studios have been around in some places for a long time (there's a great tradition of Open Studios in Berkeley, CA where I used to live, where the idea started more than 25 years ago.) Some people are timid about going into an unknown artist's studio - what will I say? Do I have to buy something? Will they look at me funny if I don't understand their art? - but once they've tried it they usually keep coming back year after year. Artists who open their studios are looking to be generous - they want you to ask questions, and let them tell you about their art. During a recent Open Studio weekend in Philadelphia I went to the studio of Dolores Poacelli, whose work I wrote about here when she exhibited at AXD Gallery. It was fun to climb the steep creaky stairs in the old out-of-the-way building where she - and about a dozen other artists - have studios. Her space was neat, tidy, and full of bright color and interesting work - well worth the trip. I found a whole other side of her work that I hadn't seen in the gallery show - and bought a tiny handmade collage for $6. How generous - but fairly typical - of a respected, serious - and very good - artist like Dolores to have a range of work available to buy. She had medium range pieces - gorgeous quality prints of some of her paintings for $50, as well as big canvases and assemblages that were naturally a good deal more. I put Dolores's piece in my own studio and delight in it every time I see it. Art is like that - it gives back to you all the work you put into it, whether you made it or bought it. Have some fun - buy some art!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Big Moving Art

Philadelphia has got to be the mural capital of the world. Under Jane Golden and the Mural Arts Program, beginning in 1984, more than 3000 murals have been painted all over the city - and they're not stopping anytime soon! On Saturday I went to a big "paint-in" to see the next major mural taking shape - lively, moving, enormous shape. The mural is called HowPhillyMoves and the subject is dance -  50, 000 square feet of dance! After June 2011 this mural could well be your first sight of the city, because it's destined to cover the parking structure for the airport, which fronts onto busy I-95. Instead of that boring modern concrete nothingness of parking structures, you'll see great swaths of leaping, moving, color, life, speed, and excitement. Last week Mural Arts put out a call for help in the newspapers and online, and when I walked into a third floor space in an indoor shopping mall Saturday afternoon it seemed like all of Philadelphia had rallied to the cause. What a sight! Kids of all ages, moms with babies in papoose packs, old folks, young folks, everybody had a brush and paints and an apron, and the mural was growing like mad with every passing minute. Judy Hellman, the director of Art Education for Mural Arts pointed out a young woman with her sleeves rolled up, painting her share - and then pointed her out again - in the cartoon for the mural on the wall! She was - and is - one of the dancers to be immortalized in this creation - look for her splash of red in the panel I show here! Murals, in the tradition of ancient peoples, and from the revival of that tradition by Diego Rivera in Mexico in the 1930's, are such a forceful expression of a community - this is a great testament to a community not only in living color, but in BIG action!

Friday, October 1, 2010

A Little Kitsch now and then...

Every now and then we all need a break from high-minded culture, and I'm getting it in the form of colorful, seasonal kitsch. Many of the 18th century townhouses in my city neighborhood were built with recessed windows, likely intended to display shop wares, but now the perfect setting for showing off the family collection of holiday-related paraphernalia. Doors, stoops, gates - all are fair game. With the leaves turning, the skies gray, and rain streaking the brick houses and sidewalks, the jolt of kitschy color adds a fun note to an ordinary stroll through the streets. Halloween is a prime inspiration, but it's just the opening act - Christmas, the high point of kitsch season, will be hot on its heels.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Oh Boy! A 'new' Bruegel

The news out of Madrid today is that there is officially a 'new' painting by Pieter Bruegel the elder ('the elder' is important because his sons, also painters, were far lesser talents.) Bruegel (aka The Elder) is one of my favorite painters, so this is exciting. And from what I've seen from news reports, this is a classic - full of wit and spirit, with a great seething crowd of people engaged in vigorous activity that smacks of all-too-human frailty, in this case drunkeness on the event of a festival celebrating St. Martin. (he's the wealthy man turned saint who shared his cloak with a beggar, in case you're wondering.) One of the reports I read called Bruegel a painter of 'peaceful winter scenes' but they're confusing him with other Flemish painters - Bruegel in his time was nicknamed 'Peasant Bruegel' because he painted peasants, a subject of no worth to the establishment at the time, but he is in fact a sly and at times subversive painter of great sophistication. Working as he did in the 1500's in the Netherlands, he felt the full impact of the bloody century that resulted from Martin Luther's actions against "The Church" - the Reformation. His compelling painting, The Triumph of Death, while believable as an allegory of religious belief, is considered a fairly accurate picture of the devastation left in the wake of Spanish Catholic actions against the rebels in Northern Europe, actions that led to the independence of the brave little country we now know as Holland. Other Bruegel pictures show, yes peasants, but show them as representatives of human actions, unfettered by the restraints of more highly civilized society - for example his work, Netherlandish Proverbs, is a glossary of many familiar sayings (Don't Count your Chickens before they Hatch, Don't cry over Spilt Milk, etc) acted out by a cast of characters with charm and colorful squalor. There are only about 40 known Bruegels - this affirmation of a 'new' one is big news indeed.

Friday, September 17, 2010

'My' Paris - arts grands et intimes

I've just gotten back from Paris, where I spent much of my time planning for my Paris Arts Tours which begin next Spring. Take a look at http://parisarts.wordpress.com/paris-arts-small-group-tours-with-a-twist/. I'm still adding specifics, but if you come, you can count on a very special arts-focused week with good food, charming people, and interesting off-the-beaten-track visits and experiences. I'm always intrigued with the the range of art and beauty in this most beautiful of cities. The museums of Paris are a wonderful treasure, but they are only one aspect. Art spills out everywhere - it's impossible to escape! Some of it is grand and imposing, the impressive residue of France's heroic past, but much of the pleasure of the city comes from the 'arts intimes,' everyday delights styled by an artisanal hertiage essential to the story of Paris. Shop windows are often tiny museums; cakes at Gerard Mulot near Saint Germain, a florist on a side street, a fashionable jeweler on the Ile St. Louis - each presents his/her wares with the touch of a practiced artist. In parks, even the little pocket parks in every neighborhood, some bit of sculpture or ancient bit of architecture peeps out of the greenery, with poignant, casual effect. On my ParisArts site, above, look for posts on this subject - even breakfast qualifies!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Rome - the Light and Dark of it

If you want to understand color, go to the South of France; that certainly worked for Van Gogh and Cezanne. But if it's light and dark you want to understand, head for Rome. Rome, where I spent the last week, is an intense study of the subject. Light and dark here are sensual, physical experiences with moral overtones. One minute the sun is beating down, filling body and soul with hot heavenly radiance that bounces off the orange/gold walls and pours into you until you are sated, saturated with light. Then you step into the shade and a curtain drops, plunging you into black so rich, so velvety, so complete that your balance evaporates. You wobble unsteadily for a moment, hoping you don't pitch forward onto the cobblestones, while your eyes do might battle with the forces of darkness, struggling to adjust.  Surely the bombardment of Catholicism in Rome is feeding my moral metaphors, but it is the give and take of light and dark in the extreme that explains why the Ancient Romans were masters of sculpture, especially bas-relief. Trajan's Column - amazing to see it just standing there minding it's own business after 2000 years while buses and taxis whiz by - is a great illustration. In the shade this masterpiece of 2nd century propaganda (designed by the great Apollodorus of Damascus) is a kind of visual mush, but in the bright sun the rugged, visceral details of Rome's victory over the Dacians spring to life. Similarly, in the Roman Forum The Arch of Titus, marking the victory in Jerusalem with the resulting destruction of Solomon's Temple, shows the triumphant parade and the display of spoils - here also the sun is equal partner to the sculptor, bringing every realistic detail into stunning relief. Busts of Emperors, richly carved sarcophagi, even architecture - in every important Roman art form the bright light of the sun is understood and assumed. The Romans didn't color their sculptures like the ancient Greeks - perhaps in part because they were more practical-minded, they counted on the ever-present, reliable sun to paint their work with the broad brush of dramatic eloquence.