Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Art and the Power of Myth

Although conventional credit is given to the holiday being first celebrated by the pilgrims at the site of Plymouth Plantation, in 1621, Governor William Bradford officially proclaimed Nov 29, 1624 a day of thanksgiving to be shared by all the colonists and the neighboring Native Americans to thank God for saving their lives and guiding them through their struggles through their journey on the Mayflower and during the following years of draught at Plymouth.

Later, In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln appointed a national day of thanksgiving. Now it is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November in the United States and on the second Monday of October in Canada. Although “Thanksgiving” is often considered a decidedly American holiday, even Australia celebrates an official day of Thanksgiving in May. Details can be found at

Norman Rockwell's illustration Freedom from Want appeared on the pages of The Saturday Evening Post on March 6, 1943 and was inspired by a speech given before the United States Congress on January 6, 1941 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during which the president enumerated four basic freedoms to which every person was entitled. In this illustration, by using familial images and a projection of prosperity, Rockwell tapped into archetypal concepts of comfort and hope that are culturally driven.

In an interview with Bill Moyers, Joseph Campbell, the late mythographer, stated that myths are “stories about the wisdom of life." He taught that they are life-nourishing and that we as individuals as well as a society have need of myth. Norman Rockwell used his personal family cook as the model for the elderly grandmother figure in Freedom From Want, and provided the nation more than a grandmother-figure to relate to during a particularly economically distressed period. Freedom From Want wasn’t originally issued as a Thanksgiving illustration, but as a message of hope for a nation hungry and fearful, a myth for a nation who experienced the deeper meaning of “man does not live by bread alone.” (Deuteronomy 8:3)

I find it interesting to note that people who think they are not influenced by art, have subliminally been socially shaped by art. For example, on Thanksgiving, countless Americans will strive to emulate the meals that Norman Rockwell presented on his illustration Freedom From Want. It is paradoxical that this struggle to put food on many an American dining room table is being done at the same time that the US government is considering providing more than $7.76 trillion to rescue the US financial system after guaranteeing $306 billion to Citigroup—which as much as half the value of everything produced in the nation last year.

Norman Rockwell ‘s Saturday Evening Post covers also provided representations of the feast day that captured various aspects of the American persona. I’ve included several of them on this blog, as many people aren’t familiar with the images.

The Thanksgiving feast also provided inspiration for other artists, including the illustrator Joseph Christian Leyendecker whose works often graced the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, and Jeff Koon’s who designed a 53-foot-high balloon "sculpture" called "Rabbit" for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Traditional Thanksgiving representations can be found in many places, but it is harder to find artistic representations of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, which is celebrating its 80th year of festivities. Joseph Delaney, a noted artist who was captivated by the energy and tradition of parades captured the balloons, floats, and excitement of the parade at Herald Square in his painting “Macy’s Parade” which was created between 1974-1984. The painting is now in the permanent collection of the Knoxville Museum of Art.

This Thanksgiving and in the days to follow as global finances have tanked, experts are forecasting that food prices will increase between 3-9% next year, homes are being foreclosed upon, companies are closing their doors and unemployment rolls are expanding, it's hard for many to rejoice. However, this is, indeed the ideal time to give thanks for all that we have---including cultural myths that feed our nation during times of dire need.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

What is the First Work of Art You Remember?

The Art Newspaper’s Digital edition has started a video series entitled “The first work of art I remember”. In the short video, viewers are introduced to the sculptor Anthony Caro, photographer David La Chapelle, and Harry Blaine, and the works of art that inspired them as children. No matter who we are, we've been influenced by art at an early age, even if we are not fortunate enough to be exposed to works of art in great museums and cathedrals throughout the globe. Children are introduced to folk art, prints or paintings their parents or mentors love, and often even the illustrations in a book will serve to inspire the young.

This morning, after watching the video I had to think about my earliest memory of art, as I lived in a home infused with the humanities. What piece in particular could I recall as the earliest inspirational piece? Much to my surprise, it was a print that hung in my grandparent’s dining room. The art is what I’ll term a “period piece” of kitsch, but it still engaged my imagination and lurked in my memory long after the passing of time. I won’t go so far as to say that it inspired me to become an artist, for it didn’t. Yet when I was a child, it captivated me entirely and on many an occasion when I have viewed the print in other locations, I have looked on it with fondness. It is more than sentimental journeying that holds my interest now, it is a recognition that the artist achieved his intended message in this work.

Today as I reflected back on the painting, I realized that I didn’t even know the name of the artist or the painting…..although I could describe it in graphic detail. After significant research, I discovered the painting was actually a photograph taken in 1918 by Eric Enstrom; it is entitled “Grace.” I encourage you to read the full story about the picture’s origin: It’s a short read, but quite inspiring.

During the 1920’s , Enstrom’s iconic image could be purchased in several versions, as a black and white photograph, as a sepia-toned photo, or as a photograph that would be over-painted in oils by Enstrom’s daughter, Rhoda Nyberg. In fact, she would oil paint them to order, changing the color of the old man’s shirt according to the wishes of the individual who commissioned the painting.

It is interesting to note the difference between the photograph and the painting, as the sepia photo doesn’t include the light streaming. This artistic technique aids in directing the eye towards the model’s hands, and only later does the eye then travel to the items placed on the table. I do not intend to enter into a dialogue about Enstrom’s talents as a photographer, but I do believe that the work was substantially enhanced by his daughter’s coloration.

What first work of art do you remember? How did it impact you? How did it inspire you? How do you relate to it today? Perhaps there is a story awaiting you, too!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

How Artists Can Survive the Economic Downturn

The Chinese word weiji (危機 translated as “crisis”) is often said to be composed of the characters for “danger” and “opportunity”; the implication being precarious situations afford us opportunity. I remember how surprised I was when I learned this is an often-repeated misconception based upon etymological fallacy. While the deconstruction has gained momentum as a modern piece of wisdom, in truth in the word weiji (危機), the “ji “ ideogram actually means “crucial point”, not “opportunity .

Despite the fact that the ideogram doesn’t support the theory, whenever there is a significant problem, such as the global economic crisis, there is opportunity for people who choose to take advantage of the situation. This was pointed out quite clearly by Carol Vogel of the New York Times who noted that “There were bargains to be had" due to the economic climate. In her in her Nov 5, 2008 news report, Bleak Night at Christie’s, in Both Sales and Prices, she refers to these opportunists as “bottom-feeders”:

"Early on, a Cézanne watercolor landscape from 1904-6, “The Cathedral at Aix From the Studio at Les Lauves,” was expected to bring $4 million to $6 million. It failed to sell. One bottom-feeder was willing to pay $2.8 million."

However, she’s not alone in viewing smart art investors as “bottom-feeders", as Editor at Large of Art+Auction, Judd Tully, published these words in response to the same auction:

It was an evening of price corrections, and some bottom-feeders took advantage. Long Island dealer David Benrimon acquired three significant works, including two bargain-basement deals: Georges Braque’s Nature morte à la corbeille de fruits for $842,500 (est. $1.2–1.8 million) and Joan Miró’s Femme et oiseau devant le soleil for $2,154,500 (est. $2.5–3.5 million). “Tonight you had great opportunities,” said the dealer. “It’s between 20 and 25 percent below market value,” he added of the works he purchased.

I suspect I would have written the accounts in a more charitable vein, electing to use a less pejorative term than “bottom-feeder” to describe the individuals who purchased the art for relatively low market prices. However, I do believe we’ll be seeing more of this---and I applaud it, for it is important that the art market be supported at a more authentic level than it enjoyed in recent history.

My sentiments appear to be shared by Jerry Saltz who recently considered how the economic downturn will impact the entire art economy, not just artists and the auction houses. Here’s what he had to say in NY Magazine:

"If the art economy is as bad as it looks—if worse comes to worst—40 to 50 New York galleries will close. Around the same number of European galleries will, too. An art magazine will cease publishing. A major fair will call it quits—possibly the Armory Show, because so many dealers hate the conditions on the piers, or maybe Art Basel Miami Beach, because although it’s fun, it’s also ridiculous. Museums will cancel shows because they can’t raise funds. Art advisers will be out of work. Alternative spaces will become more important for shaping the discourse, although they’ll have a hard time making ends meet.

As for artists, too many have been getting away with murder, making questionable or derivative work and selling it for inflated prices. They will either lower their prices or stop selling. Many younger artists who made a killing will be forgotten quickly. Others will be seen mainly as relics of a time when marketability equaled likability. Many of the hot Chinese artists, most of whom are only nth-generation photo-realists, will fall by the wayside, having stuck collectors with a lot of junk....The good news is that, since almost no one will be selling art, artists—especially emerging ones—won’t have to think about turning out a consistent style or creating a brand. They’ll be able to experiment as much as they want.

Ok. So that’s the good news! We can experiment during this down time. We can explore different techniques, improve our work, make contacts, develop our portfolios, and increase our inventory. And when the market starts to move from being bearish to bullish, we’ll be ready for it---fully armed with great art and visions to share with the changed world that will welcome new ideas.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Of Mice and Men and Foxing: Preserving Works on Paper

Years ago I spent several months collecting poppy seeds from various gardens that grew these plants. It was my intention to collect the seed pods and then create a garden showcasing the wide variety of poppies. I ensured that each little envelope or paper bag was appropriately marked with the common name as well as the botanical name of each variety of poppy seed it enclosed. I further stored the extensive collection in a cardboard box in my basement. Throughout the long British winter, I dreamt of the garden I would plant once the snow was a memory. I envisioned a summer and autumn paradise of color---all stemming from this beautiful flower.

When spring arrived, I went into the basement and was shocked to discover that at least one mouse had dined throughout the winter on the poppy seeds; none were left. This was my first real lesson in the importance of proper preservation techniques.

Several years ago I reinforced this lesson when I learned that some lovely watercolors I had framed previously were starting to develop brown stains in patches because the framer I had used failed to use acid-free materials. Prior to re-framing the works on paper, I was oblivious to the deterioration. The matte-burn was due to proximity to acidic window and back mattes and had yet to expand into the visually-exposed area of the paintings. Luckily, we caught it in time and the paintings were saved. However, I learned that it is vital that you work with a frame shops that use museum-quality archival framing techniques and materials, even if they seem more expensive than other framers. The additional money you spend will be a good investment for any works on paper that you value.

The stains/matte-burn on my paintings is often referred to as foxing because the color of the spots was said to resemble that of a fox's fur. The discoloration are a type of mold, often caused by metallic impurities in the sheet due to manufacturing. Foxing is an indication that the paper is acidic. The Mass Deacidification Feasibility Project Report : February 2001, a report by the British Library on acid deterioration of paper helps to elucidate the situation. Here is an extract of their report:

"The core constituent of paper manufactured before the onset of the Industrial Revolution was rag fibre. However, even though the final product was successful, the processing of rag fibre was costly and generally small scale. The supply of rags for papermaking became insufficient to meet the demands for paper brought about by rapid population growth and increasing literacy during the second half of the 19th Century.

With the increased output potential of industrial machinery and the developing knowledge of the use of a wider range of chemicals, a major change in the approach to paper manufacture took place. This change was to seriously affect the finished product. Wood pulp, literally macerated tree fibre, was chosen as a more widely available source material. A range of chemical treatments were incorporated to process the raw fibre - to encourage it to break-up, and to ensure the smoothness and colour of the finished product. Chemical wood pulp, as it became known, was produced from both hardwood and softwood chips.

It is true to say that the benefit of cheaper and much more widely available printed material, was immediately felt by the consumer, and contributed to the spread of knowledge in the industrial society. This cultural change was to significantly increase the scale of the acid paper problem.

Unfortunately, a combination of the inherently unstable chemical composition of the wood pulp fibre, plus the further chemicals added to the paper making process, all conspired to affect the long-term potential of the product and kick started this cycle of decay. Once this new paper product was exposed to light, heat, poor storage conditions and the high levels of Sulphur Dioxide pollution produced by the industrial age, the process of decay was accelerated.

The naturally deteriorating compounds within the paper structure then started to react to synthesise acids. In turn these acids started to work on the paper fibres, already shortened and weakened by the production process. The result is a discolouration of the paper (a darkening brown), and an embrittled quality to the sheet (or page). Even careful handling causes further deterioration and the material soon becomes unusable. Unchecked, this chemical deterioration continues until the sheet is completely destroyed, leaving only a pile of brown flakes. "

To remove foxing from paper, one can lightly dab 3% hydrogen peroxide onto the affected area using a cotton swab or cotton bud. Ensure you don't soak the spots and that you test the procedure on a less critical area of the paper---there is no sense in potentially destroying a valuable painting or other document such as a prized letter for the sake of bleaching out the foxing. Be aware that this method doesn't always work and it may be advisable to consult a professional conservation expert rather than attempt the task yourself.

Many people collect posters or newspapers of important historical events, such as the birth of a child, a wedding announcement, or the election of a world leader. It is important that special care be taken when preserving these documents for posterity. The US Library of Congress maintains an excellent resource of suggestions for document preservation at

Here are some basic recommendations on how to preserve historic front pages of newspapers or other important documents:

Store your document flat, out of direct sunlight and in low humidity, and not in anything plastic that can trap moisture because the papers are apt to become mildewed. The paper will be better preserved and survive longer if you invest in buffered, acid-free tissue paper to lay between sheets and front and back covers of a newspaper. This acid-free paper can be purchased at art supply stores or ordered online from archival storage suppliers. The Smithsonian offers a list of suppliers at

If you elect to preserve an entire newspaper, be aware you should use a tissue between each page, so the cost of preserving the document can become a bit pricey if you are saving more than simply the front page. Please don't be tempted to save money by using regular tissue paper, especially colored or one with print designs, as it will expedite the deterioration of the newspaper.

Additional preservation information:

There is no self-adhesive tape currently available which is archival. Because of this, try to avoid using all self-adhesive tapes as these will often fail or stain, and the adhesive becomes difficult to remove later. The glue and tape are also a favorite diet of insects, so it is wise to avoid it entirely.

Do not use paper clips or rubber bands to keep loose pieces of paper together.

Photos and works on paper should be stored in acid-free enclosures, made of either paper or card. Alternatively one can encapsulate them in mylar or polyester envelopes or in Melinex (a clear polyester film). Ensure that the storage containers are acid-free but do not contain PVC (Poly Vinyl Chlorides). Be aware that even acid-free paper may contain lignin, which over time will cause deterioration. Therefore, it is advisable to purchase paper that is both acid-free and lignin-free.

Learning from my lesson of the poppy seeds, choose storage locations which minimize exposure of your documents, posters, or newspapers to dampness, heat, air pollutants, dust, insects and vermin. When storing the boxes, ensure they are well above the floor, to avoid damage from potential water damage.

You may have noted that archivists and appraisers wear cotton gloves when handling paper items or valuable paintings. This is because the natural oils from your fingers can damage your papers. Follow their lead and only minimally handle your valued works on paper.

While one can't anticipate or prevent every potential type of disaster, you can take simple measures to retard deterioration and prevent damage by creating conditions optimal for the preservation of your prized works on paper, maps, posters or newspaper front page.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Artist's Muse Wins More Awards!

“I don't deserve this award, but I have arthritis and I don't deserve that either.”
--Jack Benny

Maitri at Magic and Moments At Dragonfly Cottage and Kim at Laketrees both kindly announced The Artist’s Muse is the recipient of more awards. I am truly blessed by the knowledge that others enjoy my musings, which generally are “somewhat meatier than a cream-puff. “ I am truly honored and humbled. Many thanks to the ever-insightful and sensitive blogger, Maitri for these following three awards.


Muchas gracias to Kim for the Art y Pico Award that was originally created in June 2008 by Arte y Pico, the bi-lingual (Spanish/English) blog “to honor artists who create, design, and inspire regardless of language or culture. Kim described it thusly : “ It’s an international award for a global community of artist-bloggers, acknowledging that what we create helps make the world a finer place.”

People have different reactions to this type of meme chain as it works exponentially to provide backlinks to the original creator’s site. In fact, one blogger, William McCamment, calculated the award has been given out (as of July 1, 2008) to 67,750 bloggers.

I’m grateful for the bestowal, however, as it is always nice to take a few minutes off to think about why one really likes some blogs more than others. Unfortunately being the ever-independent and free-thinking artist, I’m going to break the meme chain and not link to the Arte y Pico blog as it seems like nothing more than a link-generating exercise by a clever blogger. However, because I believe recognition of others is important, I am passing all four of awards onto the eleven following outstanding artists and creative bloggers who inspire me whenever I read their blogs:

Thank you for sharing your talents and making the world a better place.
I hope no one feels either obliged to take part and/or feels disappointed they were excluded from my list of nominees.

In a recent interview, Maya Angelou, the noted American poet, reflected:
“You need to know that you can go somewhere. You're not just like grass growing on the street. You're like trees, you have roots, and they've done wonderful things, and you need to know that, and by knowing that, you see how outfitted you are for these times. And that you really owe it to those who went before so that you can add to them for those who are yet to come. You need to know that you are in a continuum, and if you understand that, you realize that you are worthwhile.”

Tomorrow the horses will run in Melbourne, Australia to determine the winner of the Melbourne Cup, paintings will be nervously auctioned in various venues throughout the world, and in the U.S. a proverbial horse-race will finish its prolonged run to determine who will sit in the Oval Office on Pennsylvania Avenue. But let us not get caught up in a winners and losers mentality, for as Maya Angelou has suggested, indeed, each of you are worthwhile and make this world a paradise for all.

Here are the "official" rules for the Arte y Pico Award:
1) Award five blogs that contribute to the blogging community through creativity, design, and interesting material, regardless of language.
2) Name each of the five blog authors and provide a link to his or her blog.
3) Award recipients must show the Arte y Pico Award image and the name of the award-giving blog author, as well as the award-giving blog author's blog link.
4) Award recipients must provide a link to the Arte y Pico blog.
5) Award recipients must show these rules.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Scream Heard Around the World

Parts relate to whole, the chain holds on, and where it ends, unknown – Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man

The esteemed psychologist, Carl Jung coined the term synchronicity and defined it as "meaningful coincidences," Perhaps the fact that a lithograph printed in 1895, Edvard Munch’s masterpiece Das Geschrei (The Scream), was offered at $2/3 million. at auction at Sotheby’s just a few days ago and the fact that the iconic image has become a comical viral hit on the internet could qualify as an example of synchronicity.

Das Geschrei exemplifies Munch’s frequent exploration of negative emotion such as misery, despair and the depths of the human soul and psyche. Although most people are aware he painted multiple versions of the composition beginning in 1893, many are not cognizant he also produced several lithographs, of his signature image. Exploring the subject from a different perspective, the graphic versions of 1895 refine the earlier painted treatments of Das Geschrei , emphasizing line over color. The inscription on the bottom right of the lithograph being auctioned at Sotheby’s is printed in German Ich fühlte das grosse Geschrei durch die Natur (I felt the great scream throughout nature).

Munch was a key pioneer of Expressionism amd used the genre of landscape as a vehicle to express inner states of being. In depicting nature in a highly individual, internalized manner, Munch draws on the tradition of stemningsmaleri ('mood-painting'), characteristic of Nordic art towards the end of the nineteenth century.

In the late twentieth century, The Scream acquired iconic status in popular culture and been used in political humor and advertisement. However, it does not hold exclusive claim to this phenomena.

The American regionalist painter Grant DeVolson Wood repeatedly asked Dr. B.H. McKeeby, a local dentist, to pose for for him but was consistently turned down, as the dentist did not want to garner any resultant attention. Having been reassured that Wood was only a local painter without hope of significant recognition, the dentist finally gave in to the self-taught painter and posed with the artist’s sister Nan for a painting of a Midwestern farmer and his unmarried daughter.

Grant Wood’s American Gothic gained significant attention in 1930 when it was exhibited for the first time at The Art Institute of Chicago and awarded a prize of 300 dollars. The painting has since become part of American popular culture, and the couple has been the subject of endless parodies, including a recently-created variation casting Sarah Palin and John McCain as the narrow-minded couple. Some believe that Wood used this painting to satirize the closed-mindedness, tunnel-vision and repression that has sometimes been said to characterize the American Midwestern culture.

As I write this blog, the world waits poised to discover who will win the US Presidential election. It will be fascinating to discover how artists, including cartoonists, will respond when the votes are finally tallied, and which iconic paintings they will choose as models to reflect their resultant emotions.