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Five in Five

Eight in Some: Sunday, February 18

A prompt for today’s post:

Recently, the chief curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City rejected the White House’s request to loan Vincent van Gogh’s Landscape With Snow painting, instead offering to lend Maurizio Cattelan’s functional, solid gold toilet sculpture titled America. If you could borrow any work of art from a museum or collection in the world, what would you choose? 

First off, I giggle at the Guggenheim’s statement in counter-offering the gold toilet sculpture to the Trump White House. 

Beyond that, well, this prompt got me thinking for days. Coincidentally, just after I started compiling thoughts and ideas about the art that appeals to me to the point that I’d like to have it in my house for an extended period, the Obamas’ official portraits were released. I am not going to ask for either of those portraits on loan, though, as a huge part of their importance is having those powerful black faces — created by black artists — hanging in public spaces. 

Sooooo…if I could have some art on loan, what might I request?

Immediately after I started pondering this question, I knew a couple of things: I tend to favor close-up portraits of people’s faces, and I am partial to textiles and fiber arts. Of course, my taste is not limited to these things, but my heart does thump visibly in my sternum for them, which explains why the first artist to come to mind was Cayce Zavaglia, whose portraits of friends and family give life to my Instagram, whose embroidery technique stops all my traffic, whose display of the “verso” of each piece serves as a metaphor for what it is to be human. An article published by Studio International notes:

The artist’s proclivity for portraying people she trusts as beautiful, strong and timeless found a counterpart in the embroideries’ reverse, where facial features become obscured by unwanted threads and knots. Zavaglia found an inspiring metaphor in the discovery of this reverse image, as it indicates, for her, the unseen and unpolished side of the human psyche. Apart from opening up the reverse side of her embroidered paintings to the viewer by displaying them on stands in the manner of sculpture, Zavaglia also found a way back to painting by focusing on this reverse side and documenting it in her hyperrealistic style in various stages of completion.

My first possible request, then, would be anything by Cayce Zavaglia.

Zavaglia’s Instagram account not only features her work in progress, it also includes images of her current inspirations as an artist. A few months ago, she posted the image below on the right, of a red-haired dandy, which leads me to my next possible choice of a loan. That portrait of a wealthy, privileged man — yet clearly altered so that the colors and his appearance are jacked up — will not leave my head. Zavaglia’s commenters identified the 17th C. original from which the red-head was drawn: Portrait of a Young Man of the Chigi Family by Jacob Ferdinand Voet, which you see below on the left. 

So Zavaglia was inspired by the jacked-up portrait, which was done by a disabled artist named Terri Bowden, and Bowden based her work on the original done by Voet, and, well, the whole business of art paying itself forward feels right and just. A blog named Disparate Minds explains Bowden’s approach thusly:

In her boldly marked drawings, Terri Bowden portrays…figures as if they are intense, strikingly present memories – fleshy and visceral in some aspects, but broadly summarized, distorted, and surreal in others. Faces are rendered with a realism and clarity that evokes vulnerability, re-contextualizing familiar icons of distant pop culture with a mysterious, untold narrative. 

It’s the business of “re-contextualizing familiar icons of distant pop culture” that comes across strongly for me in the red-haired Chigi portrait. That dandy in Bowden’s painting is club-ready — his colors vivid and unreal in a way that makes me feel like I want to get dizzy under a disco ball with him.

In other words, I wouldn’t mind that face hanging on the wall in the living room.

Also arresting to my eyes are the narrative quilts of Faith Ringgold, best known as the author of the children’s book Tar Beach. On her website, there is an FAQ section; one of my favorite moments on that page is this:

Do you do all your books on the criticism of black people? 
Like all artists and writers, I am both enriched and limited by what I know and have experienced. In other words my books and my art are based on my life’s experience. I am, as you know, a black woman in America.

I also appreciate this overview of her work and views, as explained on Artsy:

A fervent civil rights and gender equality activist, Faith Ringgold has produced an inherently political oeuvre. In the early 1970s, she abandoned traditional oils for painting in acrylic on unstretched canvas with fabric borders, a technique evoking Tibetan thangkas (silk paintings with embroidery). The painted narrative quilts for which Ringgold is best known grew out of these early paintings, and denounce racism and discrimination with their subject matter. Combining quilt making, genre painting, and story telling through images and hand-written texts, the series “The American Collection” (1997) endeavors to rewrite African American art history, emphasizing the importance of family, roots, and artistic collaboration. In addition to demonstrating against the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney over what she perceives to be their exclusion of black and female artists, Ringgold has co-founded groups to support these demographics.

Below, you can see a few options that I would weigh, were I to request a loan of one of Ringgold’s quilts. On the left is Josephine Baker’s Bananas, in the middle is Who’s Bad?, and on the right is Echoes of Harlem

Another possible request for a loan might be this next piece, Trolleyed, by Debbie Smyth, whose work is described as “statement thread drawings” by Thread Week:

 …these playful yet sophisticated contemporary artworks are created by stretching a network of threads between accurately plotted pins. Her work beautifully blurs the boundaries between fine art drawings and textile art, flat and 3D work, illustration and embroidery, literally lifting the drawn line off the page in a series of “pin and thread” drawings.

The mixture of strong lines with messy ends feels a bit like looking in a mirror, to be honest. That this work manages to be both complicated and spare is another achievement I appreciate in all arts. Capping off my positive reaction to this shopping cart is that it’s an everyday thing — not some fancy 17th C. dude ready to go to the club but, rather, an item we all have touched, pushed, and used for its practicality. I look at Smyth’s cart, and it feels familiar; it feels tangled; it feels real; it feels fanciful. It feels like it should come hang on my kitchen wall.

Okay, the next contender for a letter from Jocelyn that opens with “Dear Artist I Admire: Could I show up with a pick-up truck and tote off one of your pieces…” is a Ghaniain man named El Anatsui who is, according to the Jack Shainman gallery:

well-known for large scale sculpture composed of thousands of folded and crumpled pieces of metal sourced from local alcohol recycling stations and bound together with copper wire. These intricate works, which can grow to be massive in scale, are both luminous and weighty, meticulously fabricated yet malleable.

Anatsui’s works feel like chain mail quilts, and I’m pretty sure I should hang one next to the bed so that I have something to look at when I can’t sleep at 4 a.m.

Awwwright, with these next ones, I’m going straight-on classic as I consider borrowing the paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi. Even though she produced in the 17th C., the controlled, bloodthirsty female rage in Judith Slaying Holofernes, Jael and Sisera, and Salome with the Head of John the Baptist feels pointedly relevant in today’s #metoo watershed, particularly if the paintings are viewed as a kind of autobiography — in which Gentileschi has painted herself as the murdering female exacting vengeance upon her abuser. Famously, Gentileschi was raped by a teacher/mentor, and if you’d like to know what that guy looked like, take a gander at the face of Holofernes, bleeding out on the bed.

 I like this article in The Guardian that asks: 

Artemisia Gentileschi turned the horrors of her own life – repression, injustice, rape – into brutal biblical paintings that were also a war cry for oppressed women. Why has her extraordinary genius been overlooked? 

Again coincidentally, I had collaged these three paintings the day before the Obama portraits were unveiled, a day before Twitter erupted with opinions and tweets about every last detail, including outrage (from some) that one of the artists, Kehinde Wiley, has previously painted images of black women holding the severed heads of white women. In some beautiful Twitter moments, swells of art lovers directed the outraged to some basic art history — including various iterations of Judith slaying Holofernes — and explained to those who can’t fathom why a black woman holding a white woman’s head is a powerful fucking statement and not just “awful” that there is this thing where artistic pieces resonate over hundreds of years, and artists reference previous works in a way that adds layers to their new creations. I also appreciated those who posted art works in which black people are abused, dismembered, lynched, murdered, and oppressed and asked where the outrage had been when they were produced.

In summary: I am newly passionate about Artemisia Gentileschi because Trump is president, black lives matter, and sexual assault is no longer cause for a woman to feel she is at fault. COME TO ME, ARTEMISIA. I’d like to hang your work in the home of a woman I know who told her daughter “You made that all up” when she read her girl’s written account of the sexual harrassments she has experienced during her lifetime. 

Now that I’ve been crabby about mothers who have internalized misogyny to the point that they are unable to be allies to their daughters, can we look at more quilts? The story quilts made by Malawian Billie Zangewa literally center a black woman, and they do it in a way that’s intimate, real, and human, focusing as they do on frozen moments from the artist’s life. In a quilt hanging in a museum (OR MY HALLWAY), do I want to see kitchen appliances plugged into an outlet? Yes, yes, I do. Do I want to see the pipe running from the artist’s bathroom sink in one of her pieces? Yes, yes, I do.

An article from True Africa provides more insights into Zangewa and what she does:

You do all your own stitching for your intricate silk tapestries. Can you tell us about the process?

I start off with an experience that elicits an emotion. The emotion then inspires an image that examines and narrates the experience. From here I do my visual research and then the template drawing. This is followed by cutting and pinning and then finally, the sewing.

It’s a very lengthy process and it all has to come together in the drawing phase otherwise I experience problems later on in the process. I have also learnt to allow my intuition to tell me what order things must be cut and pinned in. Previously, I would go from left to right or visa versa but the intuitive approach is more exciting and rewarding.

There’s been a lot of discussion on representation of black women in arts and culture. Do you find it empowering to portray yourself in your work as an African and black woman?

Absolutely. I am using my own image and body to tell my story. What could be more empowering than that?

Fortunately, my house has endless capacity when it comes to space on the walls for great art, which means I would like to borrow at least ten portraits painted by Missoula artist Tim Nielson (who also happens to be a friend, so you fuck wid him, you fuck wid me), filling all remaining hanging space with his vigorous, glorious, no-bullshittery patterns and shadows. If you follow him on Facebook, you’ll see that Tim chooses to paint people who deserve greater representation, and, truth be told, many times I don’t initially know the histories of his subjects. Fortunately, researching them teaches me much and gets my head to a place where I can start to see how Florynce Kennedy, Emma Goldman, John Brown, and St. James Hampton, for instance, are interrelated contributors to vision, activism, and constructive anarchy. 

With Tim’s portraits filling my house, I’d have to shout at least once a day, “OKAY, BITCHES, LET’S OVERTHROW SOME SHIT!”

While my yells might scare the neighbors during windows-open season, who knows: some of them might get inspired.

And before you know it, look

Something happened.

Art changed the world.

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Twelve Days of Summer Wee Niblet

Twelve Moments of Summer with My Twelve-Year-Old: DAY TWELVE


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On the twelfth day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: twelve plushies thrumming

——————

We can trace it through the generations: the impulse towards creative expression.

Paco’s paternal grandmother is an artist, a painter.

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Paco’s paternal grandfather is an architect, a photographer.

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Paco’s maternal grandmother is a hand quilter, a stitcher.

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Paco’s maternal grandfather was an opera singer, a tenor.

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Hit the play arrow to hear my dad singing in–I’m guessing–the early 1960s, when he was still in his twenties. He started good. He got better.

Paco’s mother exalts in a forceful verb, in a fucking syntactically satisfying expletive. She also posts conversation-provoking images on Instagram. Below, for example, is a commentary on pop culture in which mockable-yet-sympathetic celebrity Khloe Kardashian’s love life is mirrored by a bored Minnesotan in her basement. From this photo, viewers glean how fragile the line is between fame and life below stairs.

All we tryin' to do is get out of the club with our new boyfriends. #KhloeandJames #JocelynandNutcracker
All we tryin’ to do is get out the club with our new boyfriends. #KhloeandJames #JocelynandNutcracker

Paco’s father takes black & white, pen & ink, floss & grid, and conjures magic.
Telephone Wires

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Fourth Grade
Hell if he didn’t cross-stitch his fourth grade school photo.
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Another self-portrait.

All praise to the skies: Paco channels his forebears.

The kid loves him some art. Perks up around some crafts.

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It takes a visionary to twitch out The Cabbage Patch at the Louvre.

As the years pass, and the boy moves from molding Playdough to pounding nails into boards to inking hieroglyphs to drawing monsters to weaving bags, he is wading his way through the possibilities, testing out each form of expression.

Currently, at age twelve, he exhibits a penchant for textiles. Always a tactile person, he falls into the feels of soft, scratchy, raised, fluffy, mesh, hard, ridged. Beyond his love of touch, Paco’s affinity for working with wool and fleece dovetails nicely with his love of video games; this intersection of interests has made him cognizant of art as saleable.

In other words: he has realized that if he makes stuff and sells stuff, he can buy other stuff. Such as video games.

Perhaps this consumeristic attitude coarsens the “art.” On the other hand, the developing sense that “If I create something good, people might buy it” gives us hope that he may one day be able to establish independence. Feed himself. Buy a new pair of Crocs. Purchase a bike, a car, a bus pass. Knit the world’s largest Raggedy Ann doll, sell it to Elon Musk, and take his parents to Fiji.

I mean, seriously. For thousands of years, art has thrived under patronage. If a piece of factory-vomited plastic crap is worth paying for, why not a hand-made, potentially culture-transforming specialty? As I’m sure you ask yourself each night while scrubbing the pots and pans: should not the Countess of Champagne have sponsored the efforts of Chrétien de Troyes?

Much like the bubbly countess, whose coins helped fast-forward the development of the modern novel, I strongly, fervently believe in the financial backing of art.

Indeed, I strongly, fervently believe people should throw five-dollar bills with all the force in their arms at painters, photographers, quilters, singers, hashtagically gifted Instagrammers, and steady-handed pen-and-inkers. More specifically, I strongly, fervently believe people should throw money at my kid if they like the stuff he makes and not only because of Fiji.

This business of patronage is one of the few subjects I can get shouty about, in fact. My Shortlist of Shouty, best read in the voice of my inner Crabby Guy, hollers about a variety of topics:

1) Use the spell and grammar checks provided in your word processing program, but also realize that no computer can replace the human eye–that venerable and vulnerable are not interchangeable;

2) Do not take a sip from my beer when I’m not looking, you greedy snitch;

3) Quit applying nostalgia to the framing of your life story. Of course things were better when you were a kid. YOU WERE A KID;

4) Neighbor, stop unwinding your hose from that creaky rack thing outside the window next to my bed when I’m sleeping;

5) Just say goodbye and walk out the door already instead of dragging out farewells while hairs turn grey. I beseech you: grab your half-empty casserole pan and buzz a straight line to the Subaru while waving over your shoulder;

6) Your nose is not smaller now because you had a deviated septum;

7) Hey, Walmart shoppers, howzabout supporting the arts instead of buying that $7.00 “Hakuna Some Vodka” t-shirt?

To counter the shouty, I have some happy:

Twice a year, our neighbors who run a stained glass studio out of their house hold an art sale. They invite a host of fellow artists to set up tables and displays to sell their wares, as well–so their entire house is populated with pottery, jewelry, paintings, and, yes, my husband’s pen-and-ink drawings

A year and a half ago, Paco asked if he could sit with Byron during the sale to try to move some of his own work. He had his eyes on the new Mario SmashBros game, you see. His parents make him financially responsible for supporting his habit, you see.

As is the way with artistic types, everyone cooed at the notion of a fluffy-headed ten-year-old bringing his products to the sale. At that point, the kid was into felting, both wet and needle. He’d made a bunch of felted balls and tubes, much to the delight of the textile artist ladies at the show. By 5 p.m., they’d informally apprenticed him into their guild.

As the texty-ladies approached him, hoping to clutch him unto their softly clad bosoms, the poor lad was compelled to back away, seeking a corner safe from embrace. He nearly backed into a six-foot custom-ordered stained-glass piece featuring a black bear snagging a fish from a river.

Art gets wildly dangerous when soft bosoms threaten.

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It’s possible Paco’s mother helped him with some of this. She was all about his earning enough $$ to buy that new video game. Er, “supporting the arts.”
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Balls felted in colorful layers are like geodes when split open.

That day, hanging out with Dad, eluding the loving ladies, Paco made almost $60. Even better, he’d had a grand time explaining his process to every kind customer who stopped by the table.

That day whet his appetite for the life-improving benefits of the arts.

That day, he went to Target and bought Mario SmashBros.

Thusly, an artist was born.

Currently, driven by a desire to purchase a few old-school Nintendo 64 games, Paco is eyeballing this summer’s upcoming art sale and honing this year’s craft of choice: the rainbow plushie. For months, our dining room table has supported the plushie factory, from fleece to felt to sewing machine to thread.

Plushie

For long stretches since its inception, the plushie factory has gone unstaffed, perhaps anticipating a boatload of nimble-fingered refugee children washing upon Duluth’s shores, looking for work.

But then, other times, Paco gets in the rainbow mood. It helps when Dad is home and has time to sew, too. It helps when he’s allowed to listen to his Nintendo-related podcasts as he sews. It helps when he wears his fluffy bathrobe when he sews. It helps if he has a comforting latte served in his special New Mexico mug as he sews.

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I could not have a better life.

It helps when my mom, the stitcher, comes to visit for a week and is happy to act as a refugee child in his sweatshop.

Now, a week before the art show, Paco is the overseer of a solid rainbow plushie inventory.

Plushies

It is this mother’s prayer that heaps of crunchy progressive types, preferably towing small children in possession of whiny voices, decide to attend the art show ‘CAUSE PACO’S GOT AN OLD-SCHOOL NINTENDO 64 CONSOLE FOR WHICH HE ONLY OWNS TWO GAMES.

It will be all the better if his customers stop to chat for a minute as they make a purchase, for they will be immediately disarmed by the artist’s disclosure of “I just really like to whipstitch. And at first I hated doing the three layers of the eyes and asked my mom and dad and grandma to do those, but then, on occasion, I really got into it. To be honest, though, I was usually tired before I got to adding the top eye tier, so sometimes I would take off a day or two just for jumping on the trampoline or hanging out on my swing before I felt restored enough to once again face the pupils.”

So maybe he’ll sell some stuff. For sure, he’ll provide gentle, detailed explanations to satisfy every customer’s queries.

More importantly, whenever he sits down to face the dreaded pupils, whenever he lays out fabric in a pleasing design, whenever he talks to interested faces about the decisions he made during the process, he’s further establishing a fundamental relationship in his life: with art–that hobby, that vocation, that passion, that outlet. Whatever role they end up playing in his days, Paco’s expressions of creativity will provide him with companionship.

That’s what art does for the artist. It fills an empty room with promise, staving off loneliness, providing a framework wherein the empty room is the best kind of room. In an empty room, the artist has the space to focus, to take the necessary hours to dab, wipe, type, delete.

Art provides the artist with a singular intimacy, one that cannot be replicated anywhere else in life. What happens between me and an empty page, between my husband and Aida cloth, between my father-in-law and his camera, between my mother-in-law and a blank canvas, between my mom and a stack of cotton squares, between my dad and a score–this thing is unique. I have no human friendship or conversation that approximates the experience of lining up words, hating them, lining up new words, rearranging them, lining up more words, squinting at them, reading them aloud, worrying they make no sense, editing the rhythm, lining up a few more commas, mining my memory, fabricating some details, and finally deciding that if I like it, then someone else might, too, while also acknowledging that if no one else likes it, it’s still good because it did something for me.

Me, alone, energized by my great companion–the stories–is also me having a delightful wrestle with one of my best friends.

The artist takes an idea, goes deep with it, surfaces for gulps of air. All around him, the world carries on, oblivious, paying bills and sweeping the kitchen floor. Committed, propelled by desire to see the full realization of the idea, the artist descends again, sometimes feeling his way, sometimes borne by bliss, sometimes hammering his head. There is no one who understands that something huge is going on except the artist, spinning around inside his idea.

I want this relationship, this intimacy, this companionship for Paco. For the rest of his life, no matter where he lives or what challenges he faces, I want art to be there for him so that he is never alone.

Every sign has it that this will happen. He has the wiring. He has the noise inside of him that craves external shape.

For now, all that is certain is that he likes to whipstitch. He’s thinking he might like to try cross-stitching, like Dad, except instead of gridding out self-portraits, he’ll make some “sprites” from his favorite video games. Also, he really enjoys crumpling tinfoil. And blacksmithing. And toasting almonds.

The impulses are there; the myriad possibilities bash about like choppy waves on a windy Lake Superior. Fortunately, art allows for everything. He can come to it when he needs it. He can forge a toasted almond into a sheath of tinfoil. He can set the terms of that relationship.

He has the rest of his life for art, not merely this one summer when he is twelve, the summer that is fading into a puff of exhaled air.

Indeed, at the end of the summer art sale–at the end of the summer–our leisurely days of together time will draw to a close. We’ll get back on the school-year schedule, and our hours together will be more fragmented. I will be with him every day, yet I will miss him.

However, in the depths of winter, when ice coats the sidewalks and the holidays approach, I will hum a familiar tune to myself and remember that

on the first day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: help at the library

on the second day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: commentary on two purple gloves

on the third day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: three hikes through glens

on the fourth day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: four flaming worksheets containing words

on the fifth day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: fiiiiive bike bell dings

0n the sixth day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: respite from my complaining

0n the seventh day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: seven(teen) birdies a-falling

0n the eighth day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: eight dropped balls a’rolling

on the ninth day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: nine sheep a’leaping

on the tenth day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: ten meringues a’melting

on the eleventh day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: eleven piped positives

and

on the twelfth day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: twelve plushies thrumming

Here’s the thing, though:

Despite all his the delight he brings and the mythology I can create around him, he is, at the end of it all, just a boy–just a kid in the midst of becoming who he’ll be.

He’s simply a kid, like any other, special only to those of us who adore him: his grandmother, the painter; his grandfather, the photographer; his other grandmother, the quilter; his mother, who rubs his scalp as they watch Iron Chef America and writes about it later; his father, the master of black-and-white. My father, who will never sing to him.

At the end of it all, he’s just a kid.

I was reminded of this when he provided me with a myth-deflating yelp of laughter one afternoon after he’d been working on a plushie at the dining room table. During his romp in the pile of fabric, he had co-opted a long, skinny remnant of fleece and decided, from that point on, to wear it as a ninja/martial artist headband.

Every time he would tie that long strip of red fabric around his head, he looked, to me, like an extra in

** FOR USE WITH AP LIFESTYLES ** The cast of "Xanadu" performs the closing number on roller skates during a dress rehearsal of the musical in New York, Tuesday, May 22, 2007. The new Broadway show is based on the 1980 Olivia Newton-John film. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
…except he can’t skate.

Because Paco’s twelve, because he’s about to start seventh grade, because hormones that haven’t yet landed are still swirling around him, he cultivates reflections of himself, but in odd moments.

Like with a ninja/martial artist headband.

One day after he latched onto that hunk of fleece, he stood in the kitchen, monologuing about throwing stars and nunchucks as he tied the fabric around his head.

Then, wanting to check it out, he wandered into the bathroom and took a look in the mirror. When he came out, his smile spanned the softness of his cheeks. He couldn’t help himself.

Happily, like the unencumbered innocent he still is, he announced:

“Mom, whenever I wear this, my hair looks amazing.”

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