The Atwood Truffle
Margaret Atwood is an award winning Canadian author whose literary works often deal with issues of identity, survival, the body, wilderness, feminism and, at times, zombies.
The oil pastel “Atwood Truffle” is based upon Margaret Atwood’s short story “Kat” (1990) which explores the break down of a relationship. At the end of the relationship Kat sends her excised ovarian cyst - containing hair and teeth - to her former lover. Patted lovingly with powdered cocoa before being sent the cyst is not “privileged figure”, is not “body”, but is both part of former “self” and “other selves”.
When Atwood gets in your head, she stays in your head. It was only two years after Atwood’s short story was published that the artist Francis Bacon died. I caught myself wondering if he had ever read Atwood’s “Kat”? Like Atwood, Bacon gets in your head and stays in your head, the pendulum of his naked light bulb sparking your nervous system:
Ode to Francis Bacon
(Dan Nuttall, 2013)
So much about Atwood and Bacon is about the body, the figure and the figurative. Atwood has carefully outlined that her works that are considered “science fiction” are really more aptly described as “speculative fiction” – events and technologies are entirely feasible given the world we currently live in. In contrast, science fiction addresses unseen or un-realized technologies (e.g., time travel). Similarly, Bacon spoke about “great art” as having attributes that reinvent fact or known existence, resulting in a “re-concentration” of the known. In a world where one casts a vote for fictional dinner duos I choose Bacon and Atwood.
When looking at “Atwood Truffle” can one consider it “figurative”? It is derived from a real object source (both a short story, and a form of cancer known as a “teratoma”). But is a teratoma a “figure”? When Bacon’s obsession with the mouth and in particular his favourite scream from the movie “The Battleship Potemkin” appears in the truffle does it become more of a figure? When does flesh become figure?
Without a voice, the “Atwood Truffle” screams for attention.
Reflections on Viewing Michael De Feo's Installation "Crosstown Traffic" at Rice Gallery, Rice University, by Susan P. Blevins
Reflections on Viewing Michael De Feo's Installation "Crosstown Traffic" at Rice Gallery, Rice University
When I first viewed the art installation by Michael de Feo, I liked it. The glass panels, with photographs of larger than life female models advertising luxury goods, partially ornamented and obscured by the artist’s painterly tendrils and flourishes, gave a swirling sense of wild nature and movement, which complemented and contrasted with the chic women, frozen in artificial pose.
Then I sat and pondered, and saw beneath their beauty, behind the curling tendrils which hold them prisoner in sylvan grasp, like wild animals ensnared. Underwater weeds seeking to hold them fast, dangerous African landscapes fraught with danger. Or was the installation simply showing us the dangers of the urban jungle?
I saw each one of them as Eve, temptress, sowing corrupting seeds of discontent in the marrow of our life, to make us dream of what might be, instilling a longing for what we lack, seductively seducing us away from gratitude for what we have. Are they the tools of advertising moguls on Wall Street, working subliminally on the collective unconscious? Are we the viewers the real prey in their big game?
Is this truth or dream? Illusion or reality? Perhaps beauty itself is a myth? Are they but symbols of spurious values which pervade our society today? Are they a symptom of a malaise in our midst which manifests itself as pandemic violence and physical sickness? Cancer of the soul and of the body. There is no separation between body, mind and spirit, so why not?
Beautiful or ugly, good or bad, we all end up eventually on the trash heap of history, dust of mortality, which tells no tales, leaves no traces, forgotten like yesterday’s fashion or last night’s dinner. History is fickle and moves only forward, leaving behind the good, the bad and the ugly.
It is indiscriminate, for isn’t history constantly being re-created and relativized by the victors?
There’s also something almost Victorian about these panels: “Little girls should be seen and not heard,” echo the suffocating voices of my English childhood, as I stare at their silent faces. What would they say if they were allowed a voice? Money buys all sorts of things, from bodies to silence to rulers of nations. Isn’t it time for women to say ‘no’ to objectification?
Like poor Ophelia drowned beneath murderous waters they stare at us, the starers, numbed and muted in their beautiful isolation, entombed behind cold unfeeling glass. Do they envy us, I wonder? Want to be free like us, the voyeurs? But the big question is: Are any of us free, or is that an illusion which also reaches out and holds us in its tentacles?
Are they after all reflecting back to us our own reflections, trapping us all in lust and envy, trying to warn us of the dangers of false values, of the sad decline of beauty, truth and goodness?
Surely such eternal values can never die, though looking through the glass, perhaps we see a void which makes us sad and melancholy, because we are obliged to look into our own aching, endless loneliness.
Susan P. Blevins
Susan P. Blevins was born in England, lived 26 years in Italy, and has now resided in the USA for the past 24 years, first in Taos, NM, and currently in Houston, TX. While living in Rome she had a weekly column in an international, English-language newspaper, writing about food and restaurant reviews primarily, though not exclusively. Since living in the USA she has written pieces on gardens and gardening for N. American and European publications, and she is now writing stories of her life and travels and gaining traction in various literary publications. She loves reading, writing, cats, classical music, and stimulating conversation.
Fifteen Years with the San Bartolo Mural
Fifteen years ago, archaeologist William Saturno suffered the first symptoms of heat stroke as he crawled into a tunnel at San Bartolo, Guatemala. He was weak and dizzy, and he only picked the corridor to avoid the mean, brutal sun.
His flashlight bounced over the walls of a looters trench, and all at once, he saw the tall, beautiful bodies of the Maya god of corn and his followers on their knees around him or carrying to him the sacrifices he required, hummingbirds and bees, babies emerging bloody with afterbirth from the world itself.
We will probably never know the name of the artist who worked at San Bartolo. But we do know one thing: he or she was a master. The artist painted San Bartolo worked quickly to paint all four walls of the interior of the Pyramid of the Pictures.
"Sometimes archaeologists have been able to detect drip lines on Preclassic painted monumental masks, where the artist was unable to control the flow of paint," David Freidel told National Geographic. "The San Bartolo mural was painted by a great master, with fine-line exquisite details all perfectly rendered."
He (or she, but based on previous understandings of mural painters probably he) painted four walls with his own intricate representation of the culture and religion in which he lived.
Like the Romans and Greeks, the Maya had constructed high standards of beauty and ideal form.
But these specific elements to symbolize beauty often resulted in stilted, stiff figures with little dimension and serious, unemotive faces.
In other cases, the most emotive Maya paintings portray the conquered, the prisoners of war who would go on to be killed for their crimes against the state in the name of the gods. Their eyes sometimes make contact with the viewer directly, while their conqueror stares off in an air of perfection and pride.
San Bartolo is different.
Here, admiration for the gods radiates from the faces of their worshipers.
Here, gods jabbing knives into their own genitals to draw forth precious blood are bent at the waist with pain, and they don’t have the stoic faces of nobility conducting the same ceremony elsewhere.
Here, blood is not portrayed euphemistically as serpents, but it is rich, gushing, and frequent.
While the murals convey a number of ideas about the Maya cosmology, perhaps the most famous mural shows the Maize God, a figure which may represent his wife, and his followers, who offer tamales and mysterious bundles. Artist Heather Hearst has replicated this portion of the mural and posted it at PBS with explanations of the iconography archaeologists can identify.
The Maize God and his wife aren’t just royalty. They’re something more than human. The Maize God himself projects wind from his open mouth. Maya women typically wore a long dress-like garment absent on the Maize God’s wife, and the sensual curves of both their bodies are unique in Maya muralism.
At the later-era Bonampak mural, 700 years later, soldiers are arranged in precise symmetrical lines around kings and priests. These soldiers are all close to each other, but none stands so close to the leaders.
The worshipers around the Maize Gods are stacked on top of each other, probably to imply depth, perhaps symbolizing the petitioners’ desire to be close to this figure. One petitioner’s toe almost touches the god.
Yet in other ways, the Maize God knows the pain of life and death. He is four heads tall, as is his wife. The kneeling figures also appear to be about four heads tall, meaning he does not tower above them as some figures at Teotihuacan do. Nay, their god is among them. He is one of them. And, like them, like us, he will die.
The Maize God needs to die, or he can’t be reborn next year, and he can’t feed the people next year. Without his sacrifice, we would all be lost.
It’s a difficult sacrifice, but it’s one the Maya desired to emulate. If the gods would die for us, why shouldn’t we die for them? We eat of the earth, and the earth eats us.
While many of the elements of the San Bartolo mural reflect typical Maya myth, the variation on themes is impressive—and it creates new questions.
The mural features Maya writing, but it is of such an early age that it doesn’t look like the writing epigraphers are used to seeing. Arguably the world’s best Maya epigrapher, David Stuart, has tentatively identified a few glyphs, but whether they represent the names of the individuals featured on the mural, the contents of the mysterious bundles carried by the standing black and red figures, or a record of a ceremony of some sort, he doesn’t know.
Zach Lindsey is a student of anthropology and an English as a Second Language teacher. He fell in love with art history after reading Elie Faure’s books. You can view his website at http://arqueogato.tumblr.com, but it’s mostly just an eclectic collection of pictures of art and architecture he’s taken, so he’s not sure if you really want to.
On the way to my studio by the river, in the very early morning, the grain trucks line up, heaped with a pale sienna load that sends the sparrows hopping and hoping. They bring wheat from eastern Oregon, grown in the rain shadow effect of the Cascade Range, to be shipped around the world. Some truck drivers are also the farmers, wearing overalls like in a children’s book. David, the building maintenance guy at my building calls them rubes and toolies; he has to go out and yell at them not to pee in the dirt while waiting to unload.
My studio sits between the train track and the Willamette River. Ships cross my window in huge black isosceles while on the other side of me are the trains, with a long mournful wail that makes a vagabond of all my intentions to work. But is mine work? What is a working artist? A plumber would never be called “a working plumber.” He’s either employed or unemployed. The farmers come, feed the grain elevators, they return to the farm as quickly as possible, before the sly city parts them from their hard earned cash. The trucks haul their goods, the ships move products across the water and the artists in my building only change the shape of shapes, add and remove colours, chase ideas and concepts making me wonder—is it work?
I am closing my eyes, imagining Tehching Hsieh. He’s a performance artist and even my hero, though we’ve never met. It may be best to never meet heroes, though I met Allen Ginsberg once and he was terrific. Tehching did a performance where he stayed outside for an entire year. Another time he punched a time clock every hour for a year, and took a video each hour he punched in. It meant he couldn’t sleep, or do anything, for longer than an hour. He looks a little crazy in the video and it makes you feel somewhat ashamed to watch him, like those television ads they used to run of starving children and you were the one who had to turn the channel.
Tehching’s works were called “One Year Performances” because each one lasted a year. For one year he lived in a cage. Someone brought him food and emptied his feces. One year he punched the time clock. For a year, he lived outside, never going into any building. Between 1983-1984 he tied himself with a rope to another artist, Linda Montano, whom he barely knew. They ate, slept, worked, and presumably had relationships with other people. There is an iconic photograph of them walking on either side of a train track.
That year, the one of the rope performance, I gave birth to my first child. Was it work? It was effort. Was it art? I was the architect of that moment, though I was not entirely the sole creator. I love my sons more than I love art and even work, which is saying quite a bit.
And during that one year I lived in a kind of cage, because I lived in a body that was confined and I shared what went in and what went out. And for nine months and three, I counted the time each day. I could not hide anywhere I went, my body was public information. I had tied myself willingly to someone I hardly knew. After the One Year performances, Tehching spent a year making art he never showed anyone and then he stopped making art at all (or so he said—that’s what Marcel Duchamp said, and we know how that turned out.)
In the studio, it’s back to work. Tehching, Tehching! The dirty trucks come to life with a roar, ships churn up the white river water and the trains have vanished, the red barrier raised. All work is transitory and invisible, the products out in the world and what is between them runs on parallel tracks, awaiting the train.
Merridawn Duckler is a poet, playwright and prose writer from Portland, Oregon. Recent poetry in TAB: Journal of Poetry and Poetics, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Blast Furnace, Zone 3, The Psychoanalytic Review, The Meadow and Really System, forthcoming from Stonecoast Review, The Offing, Rivet, Nerve Lantern, Blue Lyra. She was runner-up for the 2014 poetry residency at the Arizona Poetry Center, judged by Farid Matuk. Her manuscript was a finalist in the 2016 Brooklyn-based Center for Book Arts contest. Recent prose in Poetica and humour in Defenestration. She was a finalist for the 2016 Sozoplo Fiction Fellowship. Her play in verse was in the Emerging Female Playwright Festival of the Manhattan Shakespeare Project. Other plays have been performed in Arizona, California, Nevada, Washington, Oregon and Valdez, Alaska. Fellowships/awards include Writers@Work, NEA, Yaddo, Squaw Valley, SLS in St. Petersburg, Russia, Berta Anolic Arts Fellowship to Jerusalem, others. She’s an editor at Narrative and at the international philosophy journal Evental Aesthetics.
By the third day, you would consider drowning a kitten, or giving up sex, for a decent cup of coffee. Such a pedestrian pleasure is hard to come by, apparently, and when you ask for it, a mug of almost-hot water gets plopped on the table with a jar of instant. Looks like sisters are doing it for themselves.
A better bet is the OXXO chain, where you can get a Styrofoam take-out of those fake lattes. While not technically “good,” machine cappuccino is a delicious kind of guilty. And also, they are crack. Except that in Mexico, everything is ten times sweeter, and you can choke on the sugar. It’s not drinkable, but the sugar-free is worse. It’s Aspartame extremism. The stuff is so sweet that your eyes unhinge themselves from their sockets.
Coffee in Mexico is, quite literally it seems, more rare than gold. There is gold everywhere, mountains of it, rising above you, showing you the way to heaven. Up, up, up it goes, taking your eye onto the frescoes where painted saints tell their stories. The altar in front of you is carved out of solid gold, and all the horrible and majestic history of Mexican mining and the Indians and land and the Spanish thieves and the grandeur of the church and beauty and all the art and skilled craftsmanship required and inspired, all of it is told to you on these altars.
The candelabra, the frames on the Old Masters, the painted trim and the statues, gold, gold, gold. At night the flames to the dead and of our sins flicker and the churches thrum with quiet fire. You can kneel inside of this beauty, you can light another candle for a lost soul that you are missing so hard you fear you could fall open, you can watch the silent tear-streaked faces glowing gold in the trembling light.
There is a gold beacon, a seven tonne angel, high above the maze and urgency of city traffic. El Angel, the Angel of Independence, stands triumphant and 22 feet tall, atop a column of 118 feet. Artist Enrique Alciati gave her wings by 1910 after a series of stops and starts and crumblings. Now Victory blinds in bronze, melting in the sun in a top coat of pure 24 karat gold.
But you can’t get a proper coffee.
Don’t worry, we’ll go to Starbucks, the artist tells you. If we have to, we have to.
You take two strong Americanos over to the Malecon and watch a little man all in white balancing a few dozen cubic metres of colourful puffed snacks on a bicycle. You have already tried the dayglo green cheesies, and they might not have been bad if the guy hadn’t soaked them with hot sauce. The flavour had real pep, but the soggy texture negated the crunch that you needed from such a calorie investment.
You sit behind the famous bronze dolphins and try to count the gold rays across the sea to the horizon but there are hundreds of them. The artist is telling you about what it was like, coming home after fifteen years. How he had gone into America through a hole in the fence when he was twelve, he’d been sent by his family to the other side. He’d had something of a life there, eventually. A wife and two kids, nearly teenagers now. A few years here and there in prison.
You both chain smoke, sipping the coffees. The artist wonders if he will ever leave again. He hopes never, he was homesick every minute and he is happier now, even though he was also near the ocean there. He doesn’t mind serving tourists at a restaurant or making postcard paintings of the river or the sea. He doesn’t want to live away from Mexico. There’s Aztec blood still running through these veins, he says.
Except he’s always been curious about Canada. Can you find construction work there if you’re willing, he asks. Is it easy to sell your art? Is the cold pretty?
But you wonder about moving here, what it would take to never have to leave. Its sweetness has been mainlined into your veins and going back home feels like grief. You could be an ex-pat, like Toller Cranston or Elizabeth Taylor. You could open a coffee shop, you could have good coffee with a Stevia option, nothing artificial, and local art, and maybe some poets could read there at night, too.
Lorette C. Luzajic
Lorette C. Luzajic is a Toronto creative working in collage, paint, photography, poetry, and prose. Visit her at www.mixedupmedia.ca.
Voices in the Hospital Gallery: Musings on Art
“Art’s whatever you choose to frame.”—Fleur Adcock, “Leaving the Tate”
In the spacious, well-lit corridor of a major metropolitan hospital, a line of empty wheelchairs like taxis at an airport, a train of black and silver, press lightly against a white wall. Grids of 2-inch square photos, in 7 x 7 rows, hang above, part of an art project collaboration between medical students and photo-media students. Unintentional juxtaposition.
Images in the grid: stethoscope and lens cap, otoscope head and “help” buzzer button, fragments, the top of a sanitizing liquid dispenser and color-coded chart tabs. Birds eye view of Q-tips and tongue depressors, an MRI stretcher-bed and vials of saline in marked tubes. Four of these prismatic grids with repeating and distinct images, sequences of chromatic variations like slides of stained cells. And yet. Some things defy measurement, defy scientific knowledge, fall away from our grasp and so there are missing squares on the fourth grid, empty spaces above the empty wheelchairs.
The wheelchairs wait. Not meant as “art” they have become so, they have merged with the images above. This armada for arms, bodies and feet also speaks to what is missing from the photos above. There aren’t any human body parts visible. The next time I come to visit, the wheelchairs are gone. Deployed elsewhere? My view of the exhibit changes. Easier to see the images on the wall, easier to detach from the fact of a hospital. My perception is more simplified and reduced simultaneously, as if I’ve been transported out of the environment. Even though the images speak to medicine, the wheelchairs added an immediacy the grids lack.
How do poets respond to other artist’s work? Where do I put my frame? I always want to be mindful of the context in which I’m viewing.
In this same Sky Gallery, four plexi-glass boxes of eyes, about 30 in each, made by people working, visiting or staying in the hospital. No two alike though each began with the same blank, almond-shaped template. Riveted by eyes, rivets on eyes, a river of eyes. What you see, what they reflect, is from the outside looking in, or inside looking out. Some are literal eyes, with lashes, pupils and irises. The blue-eyed congregate with like-eyed as do the black and brown ones. Some are figurative, imagistic, symbolic. A heart where the pupil is and inside the heart, a book. One eye is decorated with paper leaves for lashes, constellations in the night sky fill what is usually white space, the pupil is a flower. “I always see / the forest” says the I-eye.
In another part of the hospital a sign reads: DO NOT PLACE GURNEYS IN FRONT OF ART. A large, multi-media piece by Dennis Evans hangs next to it. Metal words frame the outside of the 5 x 10 foot piece. Natural Law hangs next to the warning sign. And the laws of nature say that nature abhors a vacuum so gurney attendants looking for a place to stash them must have found the space convenient. Was there a patient on the gurney who needed to rest, to gaze at something other than the white ceiling?
Continuing over the top of the frame, Day, Times Rhythm, The Great Cycle, Nature Opera and Night carry on. Bifurcated canvas of creamy yellow and black further delineate day and night. Though no gurneys currently block the art, clearly one or more have. The second part of this art piece hangs directly opposite it, across the hall, and bears the ravages of being “equipment damaged.” It is missing three of its 5 metal ‘rocks’ which were once outcroppings on the piece that speaks to the balance of nature and science. Now out of balance, it appears as an amputee.
This hospital, one of three in the area with significant collections of: paintings, sculptures, mixed media, crafts: woven, carved, glazed, sewn, stuffed, installed, photographed, made by “professional” artists, patients, doctors, nurses, and staff, is a testament to the need for, and high regard for, voices from both sides of the body/mind. “Is this a museum or a hospital?” a child asks his father. We are standing in an atrium space between surgery clinics. It is airy and spacious. A spiral staircase cascades down four flights from skylight to blue-rock pool.
Touching art is often prohibited here, as in a museum, but in this space, a life-sized horse by Deborah Butterfield, made from recycled, metal scrap, can be petted. He gazes forever out the wall of glass to grass he’ll never graze. We hunger for escape too, hope that what ails us and what heals us can balance, lets us walk out unaided by chair or gurney, lets us reframe our world. As Fleur Adcock said:
…Put what space
you like around the ones you fix on,
and gloat. Art multiplies itself.
Art’s whatever your choose to frame.
Suzanne E. Edison
Suzanne's work appears, among other places, in: her chapbook, The Moth
Eaten World, Finishing Line Press, 2014; Spillway; Crab Creek Review; The
Healing Art of Writing, Vol. 1; The Examined Life Journal; Face to Face:
Women Writers on Faith, Mysticism and Awakening, and www.literarymama.com.
All photographs by the author. All artwork resides in the University of Washington Medical Center Hospital, Seattle, Washington.
Beautiful, Beautiful Machines
“…Nature photographs downright bore me for some reason or other. I think: ‘Oh, yes. Look at that sand dune. What of it?’”
I love to photograph machines, trucks, construction sites, glass, bricks, engines, skyscrapers, cement slabs, forklifts, bulldozers, factories.
Like the great feminist philosopher Camille Paglia, I love roads and concrete bridges. She wrote, “When I cross America's great bridges, I think: men have done this. Construction is a sublime male poetry.”
When I consider nature, I feel appropriate awesome wonder. I am moved by stars and water lilies. I weep during storms. When I stand by the ocean, I feel God’s grandeur deeply in my soul. I feel the veins of minerals in the earth, lapis and turquoise and silver. The mirror of a lake is a miracle. Lava and lilacs, hail and icicles. Feathers astound, as does the unexpected ululating elegance of the neck of the giraffe. I am curious about the planets, and standing in a room of dinosaur bones is always downright mythic.
Still, none of these holds my fancy for long. I scan the horizon of the sea for a ship and want to know her name, and the names of the men inside her.
Walking in the forest among unwinding fiddleheads and vines and all of their attendant fairies, my spine prickles when I see an empty can of Coca Cola, or the remains of a fire pit. I comb the beach for plastic trinkets washed up from someone else’s life in another land. These treasures are their own kind of archeology. My pulse quickens when I see the footsteps of man.
It’s fashionable for man to find man’s presence a disgrace, to snort with disgruntled indignation about man’s mark, to declare that our very presence has spoiled something pristine that is only pure without us.
This self-hatred is readily revealed in how we use words like synthetic, unnatural, man-made, artificial, and unnatural; these are all used to describe the mark of man. But man is natural, man is nature, man is part of nature, and anything man makes or does is therefore natural and part of nature. How can anything we’ve made be artificial? Such language is an effective psychological manipulation to undermine human creativity. Our problem is not just racism, sexism, and a long lineup of assorted hatreds of the “other.” It is this, too, this intrinsic loathing for our own existence. In the face of human accomplishments, we feel a strange kind of guilt when the only moral response is gratitude.
I don’t propose that humankind is perfect or that he does no wrong. On the contrary, I believe in sins, and our accountability for them. On the other hand, I don’t believe that natural is neutral, or share the Romantic painters’ adulation and delusion that she is innocent. Nature is not just pretty daisies and lazy meadows: it also open sores and parasites and festering diseases. It is the destructive power of fire, and the agony of childbirth inflicted on billions of innocents. It is the ruthlessness of rape in the animal kingdom, of tormenting one’s young and eating them for fun among chimpanzees.
There is a certain kind of carelessness to in the thoughtlessly flung empty can, and the can’s story contains factory tyranny and toil. But it also includes the macabre fairy tale of sugar, an epic evil harnessed by man but which is wholly natural. No, not just the story of slavery, but the sweet stuff itself. It’s a substance that has seduced the gullible and left festering, rotten holes where teeth used to be; it has poisoned untold pancreases, crippled us with cancer, and wreaked more havoc than all the fake pharma we’ve ever known.
But all the magic is here in this story of the tossed tin, too. How we took one of those veins from the soil, where it sat inert, we ground stones into pigment and made paint, and from that paint we have made a trillion paintings. We made tin and bronze, we melted metal, we polished emeralds and made heartbreakingly beautiful things.
Machines are magic. Photography is witchcraft. We have made languages, and when we started writing, we began to preserve the history of culture. We could record poetry and stories. We were Dante and Virgil and Job, Sharon Olds and Haruki Murakami.
We made music. On whatever we could find, and with manmade machines. With more machines, we also learned how to preserve it.
Most paintings and pictures of the industrial revolution and of machines are clouded with some kind of obligatory apology or condemnation of progress. My photography of buildings and oil pipes and steel structures and urban alleys seeks to show magnificence instead. The chugging trains and the whirring printing presses and the trucks hauling produce and raw materials are about being alive.
I see beauty in stacks and bricks and steam. Here is the story of our struggle to invent. Here is how we made the world smaller, and invented possibilities to know other people far away. I see grandeur in skyscrapers and cities. Here is the story of people, of communities striving to stretch the laws of physics to their limits, discover the boundaries of the outer edge of the imagination. From the wheel and turning sand to glass, to La Traviata. And consider how we take for granted the now ubiquitous mobile phone! If our ancestors dreamed we could whisper into a little black box and talk to strangers in the Congo or Buenos Aires, they would deem it sorcery.
It boggles my mind when we “research” astrology or crystal “power” or look for evidence that a “medium” calling out “I feel the initial J!” might actually be talking to the dead. We have magic so magic that by pressing a button, we can see cinema filled with the living voices of dead people. We can turn sand into instruments that let us communicate instantly with people five thousand miles away. We know the names and chemical makeup of thousands of stars, for real, not for some mumbo jumbo. Magic is not some vague vibe from swishing sage or obsidian about! We have long taken the compounds in plants for real medicine and real food, we have already mapped time with those rocks.
And oil, that apparent evil, black gold, as if energy is always some kind of personification of greed. Oil is a miracle- the ultimate in recycling. The discarded remains, the garbage dump, of beings gone before, turned into power that can fly us across the world into the arms of our lovers or new friends in a day. Refuse that can propel machines to take spices and pineapples north by morning.
When I see machines and cities and concrete, I survey man’s astonishing history of architecture and culture and art and transportation and evolution.
Oh, the machines! The spinning wheels! The greasy mechanical parts! The skyscrapers! The roaring engines! The mammoth steel bridges!
Ayn Rand said, “The machine, the frozen form of a living intelligence, is the power that expands the potential of your life by raising the productivity of your time.”
Machines have freed women from lye-raw hands and a lifetime of nothing but washing clothes, and machines have freed men from the fields, where they were mere beasts of burden, to be doctors and writers and chefs. Machines have made books available to everyone, not just to emperors.
Beautiful, beautiful machines.
When I wander in the glory of a starry night, I feel a profound sense of awesome wonder. I experience intense gratitude for the beauty of the natural world.
But it is the skyline of a city and the twinkling of its lights breaking through those stars that inspires me more.
Lorette C. Luzajic
"I have never felt salvation in nature. I love cities above all."
The fireplace with its dying fire, the green patterned wallpaper curling at the molding, the soft bed which has lately been stingy with dreams—the painting has made a painting of the room. The awkward stems in the awkward vase and the last flare of life in the darkness. Just a study, no subject but that which can be arranged on a table. No subject but experience, the weight of my blood in the darkness, my throbbing arm. The fire snaps and throws a flare on the hearth, the pattern on the wallpaper rising like bubbles in a fish tank. Workmen call to one another; a new dumpster clangs on the street. Life pedals on in the dark, lighting its dynamo. The blooms, now, there’s courage.
Paul Barron received an MFA from the University of Michigan, where he teaches writing. He currently serves as the director of the Lloyd Hall Scholars Program, a living-learning community focused on writing and the arts. His short fiction has appeared in Pretext and is forthcoming in The Nottingham Review.
note from the editor: The author, David Brydges, is the artistic director of poeARTry North, an annual competition of painting and poetry. "Spring Pulse Poetry Festival is Northern Ontario’s first poetry/arts festival, which partnered in 2008 with Tyna Silver and Temiskaming Palette& Brush Club to solicit paintings/poems under the title “Poetic Visions.”We then created a competition/award ceremony during the festival to reward the best paintings and poems. The artists were colouring their words well. Its success spread and artists outside the local art club wished to participate. Since 2014 PoeARTry North has been open to all Northern Ontario Art Association members and non-members. Our vision is to expand in 2018 to all Ontario painter/poets. In 2020 make it a Canadian competition with invitation for painter/poets to submit to an eventual 2022 biannual international event."
Writing Down the Coloured Bones
The Art of Writing on Art
"Poetry surrounds us everywhere, but putting it on paper is, alas, not so easy as looking at it”.
- Vincent Van Gogh
Poems are the literary skeletons for inspirational flesh to hold upright the paintings’ body of expression. Both share a common heartbeat alive with juices from the muses. Group of Seven artist J. E. H. Macdonald writes, “A poem is a perfect moment of time with a heightened sense of heart and pulsation in it. A picture is a perfected enclosure of space seen with heightened vision.” The two genres engage and interrelate on canvas and paper the dual direction of where this creative pulse will finally rest in form and feeling. One spirit envelopes the process, giving coherence to what finally becomes a finish work of art.
A technical simplicity is demanded to capture with precise order aflame perceptions sparking from mysteries source. Illustrated in the book, On the Art of Writing, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch states a useful metaphor for painting. "You gather as you read that economy of words with 'concrete nouns and active verbs' is what gives writing clarity and merit." He continues, “If you think of this in terms of painting and drawing you see that economy of line and colour holds just as important a part in art”.
One danger is the painting overpowering the poem. Or the poem overpowering a painting. I co-judged one competition and sensed one of the strongest poems didn’t have a technically accurate painting to match its poetic backbone. Another time one of the strongest paintings had an inferior poem that just didn’t move the judges to reward a twofold vigour. Proportion is of upmost necessity in defining an award winning painting/poem.
Every movement and stroke is coordinated to craft a well -formed picture. There is adventure in continual creation beyond just a painting. Rich rewards await the artist who keeps fueling the original fire, enabling another avenue of expression to impress itself. Revealing multiple details and cross- meanings to the paintings' first formed dimension. A twin light burning extra hours of illumined gifts adding balance and delight.
When the urge to be poetic arrives, it is an intuitive dance that the artist brings to interplay. Words are not the first medium of comfort for some artists. One artist who won a painting/poetry competition said: “I now know what you writers struggle with when composing.” He spent three months crafting his very short almost haiku-style winning poem. It perfectly mirrored word for word a parallel connection to his visual story painting.
Words tied with equal precision are ribbons of reverie complementing the paintings formative visuals. Once completed a certain tension diffuses enabling the artist a more vibrant vista. When you saw the painting you heard the poem and vice versa; when you read the poem you saw the painting. Simonides the Greek poet said, “Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting with the gift of speech.”
Imagery, the great equalizer, is deeply conversant and at home in both realms. Using different senses causes an appreciation of its fused merging. Each must divide “space to be” in order to reorder its route back to wholeness. You the reader and observer is drawn into an emotional dialogue. Felt connections quietly harmonize the eye and ear. Our frame of reference has shifted and reshaped itself into a more enlarged spatial canvas of aesthetic possibilities. Retraining to view/read with singularity and perceptual purpose a blending of mutual beauty. As William Blake says, “The eye altering, alters all.”
At a painting/poetry competition award ceremony two years ago we had the people’s choice award. The general public is encouraged to be the judge and vote for their favourite. At the end of the night with ballots counted the winner is announced. That year the art loving public along with artists picked the painting /poem that won first place in this blind judging competition.
A kinship of knowing had warmed everyone. The artist had done their job in conveying a cohesive brilliance. How a painting paired with a poem can unite the spirit of truth transcending its division of discipline. With an elegant intercession both are silent testaments hanging on the galleries walls. Pleasure extends to the audiences unique viewing perspective.
The abundant journey favours all with rich rewards. A natural return to the complexion of creation. Art and writing co-existing in the same body of being. It’s muse voice says “write down my coloured bones so I can double the gifts”.
David C. Brydges
Critic Irving Sander wasn’t initially interested in art. But he happened upon a Franz Kline painting and couldn’t get it out of his mind.
Upon reflecting on how art provoked such profound and intense emotional responses, he concluded that art, in a way, “has magical powers, like a fetish, icon, or reliquary…The art object can literally bewitch the viewer. Casting a spell, it can transform him or her- that is, summon up a fresh perception of art, life and the world, and even cause the viewer to feel, think, imagine, and act in new ways…”
I too am bewitched by the captivating, mythical, mesmerizing effects of art. Indeed, this is exactly the reason I obsessively comb the Internet, pore over my library of art books, and scour galleries and museums. I got hooked on that magic.
Some art is a visceral, albeit, cheap thrill, and its rush fades fast. Other art lingers, coming up time to time in the unconscious like a spectre rising over submersion, calling like a loon over a deep lake and flashing silver light into your own dark waters.
The work of Ali Rashid seems to transcend still all of this. With a few sprinkled colours dancing on a monochromatic backdrop, the paintings might be pleasant but unassuming abstractions, perfectly decorative. But instead, somehow, they conjure Babylonian tablets and secret codes; symbology systems, ancient records and desert topographies. As if over millennia, there are wear marks and peeling textures and scratches that suggest mythologies older than time itself.
But what are they?
“Some years ago I visited a small island near the coast of Syria and there I saw walls that were, so to speak, talking to me,” wrote Wouter Welling on Rashid’s webpage. “Children had painted their own hands as signs of protection on the walls. The paintings of Ali Rashid reminded me of those walls filled with vivid signs. One doesn’t have to be able to read the signs to feel that they are bearers of meaning.”
Indeed, Rashid was born in Iraq, where the mists of time cloak the earliest human writings we know of, cuneiform code systems from Sumer.
Welling recounts Rashid telling him how his work began. Living under the savage dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, and a soldier in the war against Iran, Rashid was writing in his notebook when he realized his words could put his life in danger. So he began drawing over the text, “in the process of course making the text unreadable. Layer upon layer he created later on paintings like a palimpsest, a way of adding time to the essence of the work. Rashid developed a poetic use of signs which relates him to artists such as Antoni Tàpies and Joan Miró.”
“Ali's drawings are a shocking memorial to the atrocities which took place,” says writer T.J. Bruder for Underground Magazine. Rashid spent ten years in hell, a pawn of two cruel dictators. Sending artists like Rashid to fight for him was a win-win for Saddam- it put numbers on his side, but if they died, that was also victory, since freethinkers were of no use to the Ba’ath regime.
Bruder says Rashid began writing every day, poetry that documented all that he witnessed.
But, “His black and white drawings of horror were laced with poems which were abstract lines to everyone but him. Ali had come up with his own secret code, protecting him from the authorities' continuous spot checks and searches…”
This was an ingenious way of passing time, preserving history, and avoiding torture and death after controls and checkpoints. “He was now able to tell the authorities that the funny writing was just abstract creative technique, nothing else. In actuality, though, they represented his outcries of pain having to fight a cruel war…”
Ultimately, Rashid moved to the west, to the Netherlands, into safety and freedom, where he continues to create his spellbinding art. While I look through, appreciate, and forget an endless parade of paintings, Rashid’s stay with me and I return to them again and again.
I don’t feel the need to decipher them in any conscious way, and I don’t think we are meant to. The mark makings do feel like the walls of caves, whose textures are inscribed with ancient invocations from across millennia. They are transformed, however, by pure modernism, invoking and alluding to history but remaining a creative and spiritual invention of the present.
So many artists, myself included, find their practice essential to their survival. We often say, “I do it because I have to.” Perhaps Rashid’s work embodies this concept more literally than we will ever experience ourselves. As such, his intriguing abstract art is not just symbolic of redemption, but a record of it.
Lorette C. Luzajic
This essay is from Lorette C. Luzajic's Truck, a collection of art writings, and will also be included in artist Ali Rashid's forthcoming book.
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