Monday, December 15, 2008

Why Is There a Snail Next to Gabriel?

One of the things I love about the Christmas season are the lovely greeting cards people send each other. For many people it is their only exposure to the beautiful art of the Renaissance and Baroque periods and to paintings with religious themes. Recently in my grammar art classes we have been looking at the Christmas story as told in art and in the logic and rhetoric painting classes students have been painting Medieval Christmas images. Most of us are familiar with scenes of the Nativity, but there are many paintings that tell other parts of the story, too.

In the book of Luke, the Christmas story begins with Gabriel telling Mary the good news that she will be the mother of the Messiah. These scenes are typically referred to as "Annunciation" paintings and obviously include Gabriel and Mary. However, many of these images also contain other objects that may leave us wondering. Why is there a snail in the front of Francesca del Cossa's version (seen at right)? While viewers today may be stumped, viewers during the Renaissance would have been familiar with the many symbols that we look past or scratch our heads at in these paintings. The snail was thought to live underground in the dark in its shell for three months of the year when it would re-emerge. If this makes you think of the time Christ spent in the tomb, you have solved the riddle. Many of the extra items in these paintings hint at the end of Christ's time on earth, even as His time in human flesh is just beginning. Lilies are an obvious symbol, but take note of how many there are in a painting. Not only do they refer to Christ's death and resurrection, but if there are three of them then they refer to the Trinity. While three is also a visually pleasing number, many instances of three are meant to be symbolic of the Trinity: three windows in a background, three divisions in the architecture, three vases on a table. Colors also have great significance in Renaissance art. Mary is typically depicted wearing blue because it is a heavenly color. White objects frequently refer to purity and red is the color of Christ's blood shed for us.

While viewing the Annunciation images, students noted that not only were there many recurring symbols, but the storyline of the paintings rarely varied. Traditionally Mary is depicted as being interrupted in her devotions by Gabriel's visit, so she is usually seen kneeling with an open Bible nearby. Luke 1:26-27 says, "In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David." It really doesn't say what Mary was doing--she may have been sleeping, which is how one Henry Ossawa Tanner painted his version (look back a couple posts to see his version). Which also brings up the quandary of what really is Biblical versus what is simply traditional. Well, the best way to find that out is to open one's Bible and read for yourself, but we do talk about these things in class. Lilies aren't mentioned in the Bible, and neither are haloes, which are always of interest to students. One of the most common questions I am asked is why some of the people have gold circles around their heads. We discuss that this is an artistic device to set apart the saints in the image; then we talk about how the Bible defines saints (all believers). But then, just when the students grow used to seeing the haloes we see a painting that doesn't have them and the question becomes why aren't there any! If you pay attention to the haloes, you will notice that Christ's frequently has a crucifix in it because He died on the cross for us.

This fact created quite a stir when we viewed Nativity images by Duccio and Giotto (shown at left), both of which show two babies with crosses in their haloes. Only the kindergartners solved the dilemma on the first try--there are two baby Jesuses in these paintings. That fact doesn't make sense to most of us, and since we are not familiar with such artistic devices these days it may leave us confused. The device is called simultaneous narrative, which simply means telling more than one part of the story at the same time, and was not uncommon in art of this time. One of Botticelli's paintings shows seven different episodes in the life of Moses--all in one scene. Many adoration paintings show the angel announcing to the shepherds and the shepherds arrival at the same time. Gentile de Fabriano's "Adoration of the Magi" (shown below) shows four moments in the story of the visit of the Magi.

In annunciation and nativity images, however, we frequently find another device that is like simultaneous narrative, but instead of telling other parts of the Christmas story, reminds us of why Christ came. In addition to symbols that refer to the crucifixion and resurrection, there are sometimes hidden references to the sin in the garden from which arose the need for a Saviour. Rogier van der Weyden's panel from the Columba Altarpiece (at left) shows Adam and Eve standing under the tree carved into the wooden furniture on which Mary is kneeling. But these references can be found in many paintings from this time period. If there is a stained glass window or carved sculptures or small figures in the background of a painting they bear close scrutiny and you will frequently find an Old Testament story told and many times it will be the story of the first couple on earth, reminding us of why Jesus has come.

I could write pages and pages about the many symbols found in just the Christmas story, but suffice it to say that if there is something unusual in the painting, it probably had meaning--even if we don't understand it now. If you have any questions a short search on the internet will usually turn up answers, or leave a question in my comment section--I'll try to find the answer and get back to you. A couple other important symbols to note are the dove of the Holy Spirit that descends on Mary and bare feet, which are a sign of holy ground. For a quick rundown: dogs represent faithfulness and loyalty, cats slothfulness, magpies Christ's suffering, irises sorrow and columbines were thought to look like the dove of the Holy Spirit. See if you can spot all these things when you peruse paintings. Merry Christmas, and may God bless you greatly in the year to come.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

My own angel

I recently took part in a Christmas ornament swap in the Christian Paper Artists group. Here is a photo of one of the angels I made. The collaged background made them all slightly different, but the colors and design elements were the same. One the back I wrote a snippet of the Christmas story from Luke about the multitude of the heavenly host singing praises to God.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

An American Annunciation

Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898

The United States does not have the same long tradition of religious painting that Europe does. One rather obvious reason is that we just don't have long traditions because the country is a young one. Our painting heritage also focuses on different things, like landscapes and the spirit of the west. While still in our teens (comparatively speaking) modernism hit, which totally changed most subject matter. Henry Ossawa Tanner was the son of a preacher, which perhaps explains his exploration of religious themes in his art, or maybe it was the drawing of the Holy Spirit. Whatever the reason, I find his version of the Annunciation lovely. As much as I admire the many beautiful Renaissance and Baroque versions of this topic, I think Tanner's version is more realistic in its simplicity. I like how the focus is on Mary and not the grand architecture surrounding her. I like how we are left to wonder what an angel would really look like. But most of all I like how her face reflects her wonder, her question of how this could be, and her humble acceptance of God's will for her life. Tanner shows us a girl who is on the beginning of a difficult road, but who approaches it without fear--a reminder of how believers should approach the Christian faith. If you are not a believer, I would offer the angel's words to you, to "fear not," and invite you to look a little deeper this blessed season to see what the Christmas Day is really celebrating.

"And Mary said:
"My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation."

--Luke 1:46-50

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Hand carved stamps

While following a link today I found a post about carving stamps that I wanted to share. Hand carving my own stamps is something I started last year and don't have enough time for (some of my friends might be amused to know that I have finally realized that I enjoy cutting things up--I'm constantly cutting out stars and snowflakes this time of year and was always the official Keeper of the Knives wherever I worked). If you are interested at all in trying this activity, check out this link for some inspiration--I see that I need to set my sights a little higher, or rather, larger. Enjoy it!

Friday, December 05, 2008

The Annunciation

Orazio Gentilleschi, The Annunciation 1623

This is one of my favorite Annunciation paintings. I love the bright colors and the dynamic composition as the eye moves down the sweep of the curtain to the line of Gabriel's back, then back up his arm to Mary's face, where our gaze comes to rest. Her humility shows on her face as she ponders the angel's greeting and the news. Notice the dove of the Holy Spirit entering at the window above and the rays of light that signify God's presence. The lilies are a reminder of how Christ's life will end--in the pain and death of Easter, but also in glorious resurrection. Mary wears the traditional blue outer garment, which symbolizes heaven. Gabriel is bare footed, reminding us of God's command to Moses to remove his shoes because he was treading on holy ground. Altogether it is a very graceful and peaceful image.

"Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And having come in, the angel said to her, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!”

But when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name JESUS. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.”

Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?”

And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God. Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.”

Then Mary said, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her." --Luke 1:26-38

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Holy Star


As shadows cast by cloud and sun
Flit o'er the summer grass,
So, in thy sight, Almighty One,
Earth's generations pass.
And while the years, an endless host,
Come pressing swiftly on,
The brightest names that earth can boast
Just glisten and are gone.
Yet doth the Star of Bethlehem shed
A lustre pure and sweet,
And still it leads, as once it led,
To the Messiah's feet.
O Father, may that holy star
Grow every year more bright,
And send its glorious beams afar
To fill the world with light.

William Cullen Bryant 1875

Thank you to my lovely friend Gayle, for sharing this beautiful poem celebrating the reason for this season of celebration.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

New art, and a little bit of it's mine...

Well, I can't believe it's been a month since I last posted anything. Although our first quarter of school is ending next week, so I guess time is going more quickly than I thought. My life has been a blur of art, but not very much of it mine. Here are a couple cards I made for a card deck project that I am participating in. It's a Christian art group that spun off of the Christian Paper Arts group on Yahoo. I've painted other things lately, but nothing that I've taken photos of or want to share right now. And color wheels and other charts aren't that interesting, so I'll spare you those. However, in the interest of trivia, I have painted seven color wheels in the last four weeks and still have at least two more to go next week. Lots o' art!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

And Now for Something Completely...

...yeah, you know where that's going, but it really is something different. No photo manipulation involved--just my camera and my son's little refraction toy. Fun, yeah?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Random Images

Summer roses.

Found composition.

I have this thing for roads, paths, trails.

Love that late afternoon sun.

Fun with the baubles.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Sunflowers, Psalm 3:3

Yay! More art, although this piece is a little closer to my regular style than some of the other pieces I've worked on for school. Sunflowers, Psalm 3:3 is based on an exercise in Betsy Dillard Stroud's book Painting From the Inside Out. I like her style of stamping, collaging and painting. The flower stamps I used are ones I carved this summer.

Initially I used watercolor-like washes (the medium is acrylic), but unfortunately, after a not-too-bad start, I made a terrible mistake in my color washes. I was experimenting by using the big paper and that created problems for me, too (said she who lives in the land of 11x17 and smaller). However, a little cropping fixed that easily; you can see the extra paper used as a further cropping device in the last shot (I'm leaving it there to show the students). I experimented with adding a paper that was a grasslike texture and now think that was a mistake, but it's not coming off now. In the last stages I re-worked the flowers using a palette knife. I've never painted that way before and boy did I have fun! Eventually I turned the orientation of the painting and since the last photo have added some green down through the text to give the stems some heft. BTW, the bubble wrap texture visible in the lower flower center in the last shot is a reflection of the flash--it's not white in the painting, but visible at the right angles. What fun!

I'm happy with the colors and the contrast and like the vitality in the knife work. There are things I wouldn't do again, but overall I'm pleased and it will be a great piece to show my students in terms of texture and use of complementary colors. Enjoy seeing the process. (Post-editing note: I see that the photos are rather small, so please click on them to see them bigger. As I frequently post late at night I've run out of time to fix it now and will need to attend to it upon later return. Sorry about that.)

The text in the stem is:

But You, O LORD, are a shield for me,
My glory and the One who lifts up my head.
-Psalm 3:3

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Using a toned paper

I don't know if I've shown the rest of the pictures in this series, but I've been working with this image for a while. The original is a black and white image that caught my attention in an ad in a fashion magazine. I began by drawing it as a regular old pencil sketch, but I only shaded half of it and left the other half as just the blocked in basics. I plan to use this to help illustrate how to begin a drawing to my students. The second version was a monotone painting done with combinations of ultramarine blue and burnt sienna. I'm not very happy with it, but that's alright, too. I can still use it to show students how things go wrong and how to spot them!

My mom gave me a variety of drawing papers, including toned papers, about the same time a sanguine sketch in a drawing book caught my eye. The image shown above was my first attempt at playing with three colors of charcoal on a toned paper. I quite enjoyed doing it and am very happy with the mouth and nose area. I keep thinking that the one side of her face is wider, but when I compared them they are the same and the illusion turns out to be a function of the shadow on the one side. I'll have to play with this technique some more.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Waxing Philosophical

"Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards." --Soren Kierkegaard

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Sargent and arms--er, make that paws

Last weekend brought an activity that our household has been excited about, yet dreading--the annual 4-H Dog Show. Okay, maybe I was the only one really dreading it. I know my 10-year-old daughter was nervous a few days before, but dread might be a bit strong. And truthfully, the dog show is less painful than horse shows used to be to me when I was a horse 4-H participant so many years ago. For one, dogs are smaller (pretty obvious that). Two, The show is shorter: half a day compared to three whole days. Three, the attire is much cooler and easier to deal with--no hats pinned into your head to prevent it flying off in the show ring.

Some things remain the same, however. The challenge of learning to take care of an animal. The fun (!) of dealing with an animal that has a mind of its own in the ring. And the discipline of practicing with the animal for hours and hours during the months beforehand to properly train.

Well, maybe she practiced for hours and hours, or maybe it was only hours. Last year I was more diligent about reminding her to practice (read: nag her into it), but she received a white because our dog is just spirited and almost as big as she is (still--smaller than a horse!). Despite a year of maturing, he is still quite spirited but a much better behaved dog after the work of the previous year. Because she felt like she knew everything after just one year, my daughter chose the route of minimum practice this spring. Therefore, despite big dreams of a receiving a rosette, she was very disappointed to receive another white ribbon. Her little heart poured out while we drove home, which gave me the oportunity to tell her about a man named John Singer Sargent.

Perhaps you have heard of him. Sargent was an American artist who lived in late 19th/early 20th century Europe. He visited America a few times and painted a fresco series for the Boston Public Library, but he was most well-known for his portraits. During his life he painted the aristocracy of Europe (don't miss the dogs!), American presidents, and wealthy American socialites and their families, as well as the everyday people he saw in the cities. Altogether he is credited with more than 900 oil paintings and over 2000 watercolors. Remember, this was a time when watercolors were still widely considered practice paintings.

Wait--did I say practice? Sargent did a lot of practice, including painting plein air over top of previously painted canvases--much to the surprise of some of his artist friends. He was known for his work ethic, which sometimes meant working sun-up to sun-down or seven days a week, and he also left innumerable pencil and charcoal sketches. Some of these sketches are just the practice of a dedicated artists, but many of them are the detailed preparations for larger pieces, like the dramatic El Jaleo. But the key word here is practice, which is what our discussion centered on. No matter what endeavor we undertake, practice with a desire to improve is the key to growth. Something I hope my daughter will better understand after this experience.

She still hasn't decided if she will tackle a third year of dog 4-H, but if she does she will practice more. Regardless of what she decides for the future, we also talked about what an improved dog we have after only two years of work and how he is now pleasant to be around. Any work at all will give a certain amount of results, which encourages me as I practice my own painting this summer in order to teach students this coming year. And for the record, she did earn a blue in fitting and showing--and we know she earned it because not everyone received blues.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Actually working on projects

And finishing a few. I'll leave out the mundane ones, like cutting out lots of clothing to be sewn at some later date and painting various furniture items. Today I finally got to a long-overdue project, one that came to me much earlier this spring in the form of a swap group. Several of us in my LikeMindedArtists fabric arts group decided to swap parts of our stashed items to see what other people would make with them. I've received several packets of fantastic, unusual, fun goodies that include fabric, fibers, buttons, sequins, lace, etc. With the commitments of school, however, I fell way behind (luckily there is now hard fast deadline--although it would be much nicer to stick with the program. I want to say sheers to the women who have kept up each month!) and finally today finished the first one.

I'm feeling a lot of pressure to paint (in preparation for teaching it this year!), but have a hard time finding things I want to paint. I would much rather take a picture of something than paint it. And many of the things that I would photograph feel rather daunting to paint. Argh. Today I looked to DJ Pettitt and Deryn Mentock's article in a recent magazine and found inspiration to combine the swapped goodies and some painting and came up with "Give". The work card is from a vintage vocabulary card set I picked up at a local thrift store and the background is painted. All the other items are from the swap group (thank you Pallas). I enjoyed mixing the colors, slowly building the glazes and paying attention to what colors work well, etc. The torso is lacking, but the face isn't too bad, considering I still haven't completed ten paintings in my life. Looking at it from a distance I can see that the value contrast in the face could be greater. I'll live with it for a while...

Another project I do have a deadline for is three fabric ATCs with a flower theme. I saw an article about using embossing powder as a resist medium and since I recently acquired carving tools I had to make my own stamps first. ;-) (While cutting flowers in the garden the other day I was pondering how my co-workers used to tease me about having exacto knives and box cutters and how I really do enjoy cutting things up. I suppose it was inevitable that I would eventually get a carving set. I really enjoy using them, too.) However, either I didn't use the right medium on the fabric (I used inks) or I need different embossing powder, but the resist part was a bit lacking. Now I'm trying to figure out how to finish them to make the floral theme a bit more obvious. The debate has come to stamping again or free--motion-stitching. I'll probably settle on a little of both, but we'll see. In the meantime here are the stamps and the practice fabric, along with the finished fabric piece.

Friday, June 20, 2008

There's a rabbit on my ceiling, no, wait--it's a fish...

"Lying in bed would be an altogether perfect experience if only one had a colored pencil long enough to draw on the ceiling." G.K. Chesterson

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Art as a Cultural Force

The following article was first published earlier this year in our school newsletter. I teach at a private Christian school and this article reflects my faith as well as my opinions about art. But since it's my blog, you probably figured that part. :-)


“Humanity looks to works of art to shed light upon its path and its destiny.” —Pope John Paul II

As I learn more about the history of art I am constantly surprised by what an important role art has played in culture throughout history. Sometimes art has reflected the culture and sometimes art has shaped the culture. For instance, art in the French Rococo-style is ornate, with fine details and frivolous, frequently immoral subject matter. This art was created for the nobility and upper echelons and reflected their culture, while ignoring the world of the everyday people. When the revolution swept through, not only did the government and social structures change, artistic styles and subject matter underwent a revolution of their own, too. Gone were the highly decorative images of the court, replaced, instead, by the clean lines and noble themes of Neoclassicism. It would be easy to dismiss these changes as the fickle fads of fashion, but a look deeper shows that some artists were in a role of shaping culture at these pivotal times.

A good example of this situation is Jacques–Louis David, who painted many images promoting the revolutionary cause. His most famous is The Oath of the Horatii, which exalted the sacrifice of self for the state. David went on to become the official painter for Napoleon and his masterful Napoleon Crossing the Alps is a classic example of art as political propaganda. The painting shows Napoleon on a powerful, rearing steed with his beleaguered troops moving behind him (there are four versions of the painting, with slightly varying names and horses, but all show the same scene). In the foreground the rocks are carved with the names of Charlemagne, Hannibal and Napoleon himself, to forge a link in the viewer's mind between the great generals of the past and Napoleon. In fact, he crossed the Alps several days after his troops on a donkey. Even after Napoleon fell from power and David was forced into exile, he still exhorted his artistic followers to use their art to restore the glory of the Republic.

The influence of art and its use as propaganda was not lost on another famous tyrant. Robert Edsel's fascinating book Rescuing da Vinci tells the story of Hitler's infamous taste for art and the allied Monument Men, who were given the task of sorting out and returning Nazi loot after the war ended. Hitler wanted to be an artist, and he took his rejection by the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts very personally. His disappointment rapidly grew into bitterness and he developed a plan to create the finest art museum possible in his hometown of Linz, Austria as a way to humiliate the Vienna Academy. As his armies invaded a country, Hitler's staff had lists of art pieces to send back to Germany to eventually be placed into this museum. Not all pieces of art were the same in Hitler's opinion, though, and art that he did not understand or like was deemed “Degenerate Art” and either sold to raise money for weapons or destroyed (at these times when an air of respectability was needed for resale, he changed the laws to strip people of their citizenship and property rights so that the state's commandeering of art objects didn't appear to be outright theft; very little money was actually raised by these sales). Museums and galleries across the continent closed and began hiding their art treasures.

Hitler also saw the value of these art pieces as propaganda, however, and made a show of destroying art created by artists whose ethnic or cultural heritage was “undesirable” to further promote his own twisted plans. For example, the cultural treasures of Warsaw, Poland were demolished because the people were of Slavic origin, while the cultural treasures of Cracow, Poland were not because the people were considered of Germanic origin. When the Allies began to make their way through Italy, Hitler used their initial ignorance of the importance of preserving art and architectural monuments against them, casting Americans as barbarians eager to sack and pillage European culture. Once the Allies realized the damage being done they went to great pains to preserve these treasures, although mistakes sometimes still happened. An errant Allied bomb destroyed most of the Santa Maria delle Grazie, better known as the home of Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper fresco. The fresco wall survived because it had been encased in sandbags held in place by scaffolding and wood planks.

In our own time art is still a powerful cultural force, although its appearance may not be as refined as previous centuries. Unfortunately much Christian influence has been lost in the arts in the modern era, and when Christian imagery is used it is frequently meant to be divisive and controversial, or used for shock value to make a quick name for the artist. Much of what is new and considered chic in the fine art world is based on shock value. I've seen several such examples in the same institutions that house world-famous paintings. At one of our country's finest art institutions, not only did I see paintings by Guercino, Monet, Seurat, Whistler and Cassat (to name just a few), but also a bar of used soap decorated with a spiral of hair. I guess it was hip or something—I just wondered how much they paid for it and who was the bigger fool (professing themselves wise...). The famous American novelist Edith Wharton once said “Another unsettling element in modern art is that common symptom of immaturity, the dread of doing what has been done before.” Since she died in 1937, she must have been referring to early 20th-century art and had no idea how much stranger art could get.

As discouraging as the state of most modern art can be, though, I like to remember that all things in our world can be redeemed through the power of our Savior. As Christians we need not fear art, but learn to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” ( II Corinthians 10:5 ) and “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” (Colossians 2:8 ) So rather than focus on the dismal state of much of modern art, I like to think of the opportunity we have to grow up a generation of artists who desire to glorify God in our culture—and that is a marvelous destiny indeed.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Joy of Joys

Oh joy of joys! Oh sweet delight!

It's teacher appreciation week and yesterday I came in to a lovely card and a gift certificate to the local art supply store! Red rubber blocks, here I come! (See previous post.)

This has been such a nice week. Want to hear a funny story on me? Last week I was under the impression it was teacher appreciation, so I took all our teachers their gifts. (See the fresco pictures in my last post for the gift to our fourth grade teacher. I gave him the cross fresco I made for his classroom.) But on Friday at the end of the day I still had not even had anyone tell me "Happy appreciation week." I was so bummed out. I kept telling myself that it didn't matter, but you know those two little voices? The other one kept saying things like "Well, you're so strict and mean with those 7th and 8th graders--they don't like you. Why would they appreciate you? You give TESTS in ART! I mean what kind of art teacher does that?!" Well, I do. I want to make sure they're listening and learning.

Well, by the time my poor husband came home I was checked out on the couch playing video games, trying not to cry between planets. Then it all came spewing out. It really showed me the condition of my heart and it came up wanting. I don't teach so that everyone can tell me what a great job--well good job--okay any kind of praise is nice--I do. I teach to help the school, to encourage budding artists, to expose the kids to an element of our created being in God's image (the creativity), to share what I've learned and the side benefits include growing my own skills, being around children that I enjoy and love and promoting art in as many forms as possible. But last Friday it didn't feel that way, until after I let go of all the selfishness. Heart check.

Then I went in the kitchen and as I was cleaning it up something kept niggling the edge of my brain. Something about a letter I'd received asking for help with appreciating my son's teacher. Something about the 19th of May. It didn't take long for me to dig up the letter and yes, it did say something about the 19th of May. It said that was the beginning of, yes, you guessed it--teacher appreciation week. What else could I do but laugh at my own foolishness? I am such an idiot.

So between feeling really foolish and getting a close up view of the state of my heart lately, this week has been humbling. I've received three gifts this week, each one very thoughtful, and each one has reminded me that I'm not that deserving. I don't teach to receive glory, but that is what I was wanting. I am humbled and that is how God wants me, but He loves me even when I mess up--I really like that part. Even when my heart is not where He wants it, He still sacrificed for me and He doesn't lose His sheep. If you're not one of His sheep and have questions, please send me a comment/message--I'd love to share with you. If you are one of His sheep--that's really the Joy of Joys and the Sweetest Delight--don't you think!


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Out of disaster, or, it all began with an eraser

Our fourth grade spends their year studying the Middle Ages through the Reformation for their history section. Since I try to plan my art lessons around their history when I can, fourth grade has been an awesome art year. We looked at some art history, we made some frescoes, we studied cathedral and castle architecture, we designed illuminated letters and we played with calligraphy. We learned about concepts like simultaneous narrative, and how to understand it in a painting, and how still lifes became popular. We looked at some popular subject matter and tried it for ourselves with St. George and the dragon. And when we came to Gutenberg we tried our hand at printing.

From which came one of our few art disasters this year. In third grade it was carving plaster; in fourth grade it was woodblock printing. Don't get me wrong--we learn through our less-than-perfect results. Even the masters had disasters--just look at Leondardo's The Last Supper fresco, which was already deteriorating during his own lifetime because he experimented with oil in the fresco (Bad choice there!). Not every art project is going to come out perfect, no matter how well you plan.

And I did quite a bit of planning with the woodblock printing project. My kindergartener proved that the wood blocks could be indented with a ball point, but the fourth-graders did not prove so hardy, and my own acrylics turned out to be much thicker than the school's tempera. Which equalled disastrous results. C'est la vie.

However, since the printed pages were meant to be part of our Book of Hours project, it was hard for me to let go. With so few pages already going in the book, having one more missing felt extra-discouraging. Enter the grand idea. You know about grand ideas, don't you? The ones that seem so good when they enter the brain; so right that how could anything go wrong? I would just carve my own woodblock and make prints for the kids.

Okay, have you ever carved a woodblock? They don't go real fast. The weeks--no more like months--it would take stretched out in my mind and I tried thinking of other solutions. Wait, a friend gave me a heat tool for Christmas. Surely burning would go faster. Nope! Exchanging a blade for fire was not a good thing.

Now that the year is rapidly coming to an end, it became crucial that I either find
a solution or abandon the project. But how to let go of Gutenberg when movable type changed the world?! (Don't you love hyperbole.) With only a few days left before we need to think about binding our books, I made the decision. The supple block of rubber that I've been hoarding would work just right. And in one night--from drawing to carved--it was done! Now I just have to print them.

If you've never tried carving out your own stamps, I highly recommend it. Being a person with way too many disparate supplies and far too many ideas, I had resisted the interest I felt whenever I read about people carving their own stamps. Earlier this year I gave in when I needed a small bird stamp for some inchies. Taking out an extra eraser I drew my little image and then made the first cut. My co-workers used to tease me about being the keeper of the knives (at every job one of my first requests was a box-knife--I mean have you ever tried cutting mat board with scissors?), and I guess there was more to it than I realized, because that first cut sealed the deal. My exacto blade went through the plastic so nicely. Three birds, two asterisks and one word later my eye fell on a pink pearl... I hate pink pearl erasers; they are the destroyers of too many pieces of art. Being of petroleum origin, when old the oils come to the surface and the unknowing art student puts them to paper and bam! Ruined! A nice oil stain in place of your graphite. So what better use for a pink pearl than life as a rubber stamp--depositing far more pleasant things on a piece of paper. Ha!

By now I've replaced the exacto with a small carving kit and had purchased a nice piece of rubber that was destined for a bunch of smaller stamps. Oh well, I guess I have to go back to the art store now. Please, don't cry for me--I can make the sacrifice! It is teacher appreciation week at our school, maybe I'll be blessed with a gift certificate. (Yesterday I was blessed with a set of beautiful markers--I can't wait for school to get out so I can play!)

But school isn't over yet, so I'd best get back to the world of art history and Gutenberg. Now, if I can just find the table underneath all this plaster and burlap, paper, fabric, markers...

Separate note: The extra photos are our frescoes. The Madonna image was done after a Byzantine image to show the kids what we were doing. However, they all made crosses, based after the cross fresco on the table underneath the Madonna. I made it in true fresco fashion, by mixing pigments into very watery plaster and painting them onto the wet plaster. Very interesting and intriguing process. Another medium I could get very distracted by.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Power of Great Art

Many years ago I spent a day at the Art Institute of Chicago. Among the highlights of my day were seeing Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte, Picasso’s The Old Guitarist (blue man with a guitar) and Monet’s haystack series. But one moment from that day was more powerful than any piece of art and, for me, illustrates the power of art to speak across time, culture and societal barriers.

As I left one of the rooms a man stopped me. He was a large, burly man, who looked like he should be on a loud motorcycle somewhere or in a logging truck back home, rather than in an art museum, and I was very surprised when he asked me if I was a Christian. Not sure what was coming next, I said yes, then asked why he wanted to know. He led me over to a painting and told me it made him want to cry. Then he asked me why. Why would he want to cry?

Because he had just come face to face with Christ’s sacrifice, depicted by an artist who had painted it almost 350 years before. At 57-3/4 x 87-1/16 inches, Guercino’s The Entombment is a imposing painting showing the placing of Christ’s body into a stone sepulchre. Baroque art is marked by strong lighting and drama, and this painting is no different: Mary stands behind Christ’s body, weeping. The strong emotions of the painting greatly affected the man talking to me, and he wanted to know why he couldn’t just walk away from the image. Why did it affect him so greatly? I know we talked about the sacrifice Jesus made for us, but I really don’t remember everything we talked about. But I do know that his visit to the museum that day probably changed the rest of his life.

Such is the power of great art. Notice that I didn’t say just “art”, or “all art”, but “great art”. Of course not even all great art is going to have such a profound effect on our lives as salvation, but great art does have the power to speak of eternal truths, including salvation. While the term masterpiece is frequently used to refer to an artist’s greatest accomplishments, it also refers to those pieces that have a voice beyond their own time. The Mona Lisa is a masterpiece because of Leonardo da Vinci’s technical skill in painting it. Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People is a masterpiece because it speaks to us of the desire for freedom that crosses class lines, which we can understand today as easily as the viewers who saw it during those turbulent times in France. (Indeed, they understood it so well that the painting was removed because from its original display because it was considered inflammatory.)

Art, like literature, transcends our own lives and moments in time, sometimes giving us insight that we don’t grasp in our daily tasks. For many centuries from antiquity on, art was primarily tied to the church and used to teach Bible stories and to impress the majesty of the Trinitarian God. During the Renaissance art changed, and subject matter was no longer exclusively religious, but still concerned with matters of the human condition. Unfortunately, many of us are no longer in a position to understand the stories or messages in these pieces of art because so much cultural literacy is lost; but while modern viewers may be stumped by many of the stories and symbols, contemporary viewers would have been familiar with all the references and understood the meanings. With a little understanding of these stories and of the symbols used, we can usually begin to grasp the deeper meanings of many pieces of art. For example, you can usually find Peter in paintings because he carries a key. Luke is many times accompanied by a bull and knowing why there is a bull in the middle of a painting, seemingly out of place, helps make the image less strange.

Last semester I asked my students which of the images we had looked at was their favorite and why. Two pieces stood out above the rest. One was a favorite because of the drama and high emotion of the scene (Delaroche’s Execution of Lady Jane Grey, a historical event that several of them were familiar with), which was not a big surprise. The other favorite was a surprise to me, though. Albrecht Durer’s Knight, Death and the Devil is a complex engraving of a knight on horseback passing the figures of death and the devil. Students particularly liked how the knight did not show fear at the other two figures and pointed out that neither do we when we know Christ. They also pointed out the little dog, which represents faithfulness, trotting at the knight’s heels on his journey through life. None of this subject matter had been discussed in class; instead students had been given the tools and they understood the message on their own—a message that we encounter in many places in our spiritual walk, to be sure, but what a powerful visual put to an abstract truth. Such is the power of great art

I'm Back?

We've finally figured out the internet thing, but these last couple weeks of school are crammed. Soccer, grades, art history (from Romanticism to Modern), Renaissance day, still lifes and a Book of Hours will all keep me busy until the first week of June. C'est la vie! Once again I am expectant that life will slow down, but when I turn my scope of vision past the end of school I realize that I still have obligations to fulfill even unto the end of June. Was life always this full?

Sometime in the next few days I hope to post an article I wrote for our school newsletter a few weeks ago. I don't want to post it without the accompanying paintings or I'd just stick it up now. Stay tuned...

And yes, the snow here is finally gone! (Still some in the mountains yet.)

Friday, April 25, 2008

Working while away

Well, our internet provider debate still is not resolved, but I've been working while away. Giving and correcting tests, updating my art history knowledge from Romanticism on and preparing for next year. With the exception of the horse, which was done as a Christmas gift, here's a sampling of my little art world. And yes, it was still snowing earlier this week, although it's not sticking now, and the flowers are starting to bloom despite it all. God's cycle of life overcomes the temporal weather and I'm so glad--it means we won't have snow forever!

From Botticelli's "Madonna of the Magnificat", this is my drawing, but it is also the next assignment for my students.

A fabric postcard sent to Scotland. I didn't fit in the envelope--c'est la vie.

A Christmas gift for my sister who rides and trains horses, gives lessons and competes in dressage.

A study in colored pencil focusing on values.

The same picture only now being worked in acrylics and experimenting with underpainting.

A gift for a friend in progress.