Monday, March 31, 2014

High Resolution Photography

Currently the painting is out being photographed. I told a friend I that after I finished the painting I'd be taking it down to McGreevy's. It was around St. Patrick's Day. He thought I was going to go out drinking with a large canvas is tow. McGreevy's is a local photography lab that has a camera capable of photographing large artwork for reproduction at full scale. That results in a pretty large file. A single uncompressed image of work on the scale of the two St. Kateri Tekakwitha Paintings might get as large as a gigabyte. What results is an image in which every brushstroke is visible, and which can be reproduced at a large scale. Above is a 6" x 6" section from the first painting.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Representing the Iroquois

© Howard Terpning
Back during the research phase of this project I was given a paper by Dr. Stephanie Pratt titled "Iroquois Portrayed: Images of The Haudenosaunee from Three Centuries." As the title indicates, the author surveys the visual portrayal of the Iroquois (in European/American media) beginning in the 1600s. The paper notes the development of how the Iroquois were "seen" by western Europeans through visual artifacts ranging from the fantastical and romantic illustrations in the Codex Canadensis and Historia Canadensis, to the more objective paintings of George Catlin. A documentation and fidelity to the indigenous cultures became more important, the images become very different. While today the culture of the United States is more sensitive and appreciative of cultural diversity than it used to be, we still have a long way to go.

I recall learning about the Native Americans in 4th grade; how they migrated over the land bridge in the Bering Sea; moved across the American continents; and built civilizations. Naively I think I assumed that all tribes were all quite similar, in respect to culture and physical appearance. I'm not sure if that is a defect of our public education system or a defect of my imagination. The point is that in this I was dead wrong, as I learned later in college when I took a seminar class in American Studies. We can't help our initial ignorance, but we can strive to be better educated.

The image above is a detail shot of a painting by Howard Terpning, an American artist who dedicated much of his later career to painting the plains tribes. In the piece Talking Robe is dressed in the clothing, and wears ornaments typical of these tribes. Although there are always individual variations, the structure of his face is typical of the plains tribes: sharp geometry; firm jaw and mouth, high cheek bones. The Cheyenne, Soiux, Crow and Blackfoot are tribes most familiar to Americans, as they are often depicted in cinema. Nicolai Fechin paints the Southwestern tribes in California, New Mexico, and southern tribes in Florida. In the painting, through the previous link, the individual reflects general characteristics of his tribe. Since we're more familiar with the plains tribes, Fechin's depictions might seem out of character.

Throughout this project I have come to appreciate the unique aspects of Mohawk appearance, dress, and culture. They are unique among the North American Tribes. They are unique even among the tribes of the Iroquois League. Granted, they also share many aspects of their society with their Oneida and Onondaga Iroquoian neighbors, and their Algonquin neighbors to the east. One often realises this about any culture looked at in depth. I've previously written about the Mohawk dress, but what about physical appearance? Much more typical of the Mohawk is this sculpture of a young Mohawk woman from a century and a half ago. Notice the rounded face and full features. These are characteristics that I have sought to capture in my paintings of St. Kateri, thereby reflecting her identity as Mohawk.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Painting Demonstration

Last week I did a quick painting demonstration for my beginning painting class. Further proof that I have a great job. I'm planning another demonstration during which I'll demonstrate painting a head. I'm still working out the details of who and how. It will be on campus at Siena, in my classroom. It will done with my advanced painting class in mind, but anyone with an interest in painting will be welcome to attend. Ordinarily a demo is not too hard to plan, but I'm hoping to have some materials on hand for general participation after my demonstration.

Monday, March 17, 2014

How to be an Artist Today

Mark Tansey, Action Painting II

Growing up with relatives in the art business, I never experienced the discouragement that many do when they express an interest to pursue a career in the arts. In fact, I think it was decided around the time I was in third grade that I would be an artist one day. After that it was just a matter of figuring out what that would look like.

The vagaries of the art world can seem intimidating to the outsider. Yet, the changes in the global and domestic economy means that many industries are looking more and more like the arts. What I mean is that it's rare to go to work for a company and stay there until retirement. It's getting rarer to have the protection of a union. Employees are encouraged to cultivate "transferable skills" that can make them an asset to any firm. Average tenure at an employer in 2008 was 4.1 years. More and more, Americans are required to map their own career trajectory. The career ladder of the 20th century has become more of a jungle gym today. Survival today requires creative thinking, communication skills, and strategic planning. But artists are used to these sorts of things, so as colleges change their curriculum to focus on divergent thinking and interdisciplinary collaboration (essential art-making skills) working as an artist becomes more attainable. The bottom line is hard work and creative thinking.

Essentially, being an artist today is being able to see things in new ways--and this is entirely learnable. Consider Beethoven. We know a lot about his creative process since the publication and translation of his notebooks. Beethoven was nuts about recording his ideas. He would keep them and refer back to them, reinterpret them and tinker with them. What's more is that many of his initial ideas were pretty lousy. In fact, scholars and commentators have puzzled over how he could do so much with such unpromising material. But he kept at it doggedly until he was able to shape them into something great. I think that's the key. Beethoven knew enough about himself and his abilities to know that his first ideas wouldn't be very good and would need some major work. Many think that if a person has talent, then music, art, football, or international finance should come easily and naturally. If that's true, then I would like to go on the record as saying Ludwig van Beethoven was untalented. To see a musical idea appear once, twice, three times, or more, makes it clear that Beethoven didn't have a knack for music. He had to work at it. I think that should give hope to anyone studying the arts.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Drapery and Patern

I completed the young girl a few days ago. The final touches were the pattern that graces the border of her skirt. I've adapted the pattern from a doll to which I've previously referred. Now part of the collection of the National Maritime Museum, it was made in the early 19th century at Kahnawake. The connection to St. Kateri's own village makes it very valuable to this project.

Students of painting often have trouble with drapery, especially when it has any sort of pattern or embellishment. I think the difficulty comes from trying to tackle it all at once. An unfinished painting by an unknown Flemish Master at the Met is instructive. The Flemish Master doesn't bite off more than he can chew, and so paints it in stages, accomplishing the value first in the grisaille.  Second comes the color, and finally the pattern. When I paint I accomplish the color and value in one go. After that is dry, I create the pattern, although during this stage I make continued use of the base color. This is useful for promoting overall unity in the fabric.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Liturgy and Creativity

Witold Wojtkiewicz, Meditations Ash Wednesday 

Creative thinking isn't the ability to make a painting, sing a song, or write a play. It's the ability to find a solution to a problem in an unexpected place. The appreciation of beauty--regardless of the context--is an important component of creative thinking. We see it in nature, hear it in music, but there is also beauty in math and the well-turned phrase. I remember being very young and knowing God as a very beautiful thought. That beauty is expressed in our churches through the liturgy of worship.

With Ash Wednesday behind us, we've entered a new liturgical season. The solemnity and quietness of Lent makes Easter all the more exciting.  John Kebble's poem expresses the journey through the season:
...let us keep our fast within / Till Heaven and we are quite alone...
The liturgical calendar provides a rhythm to life and has served as rhythm to creativity as well. The cycle of the Stations of the Cross has as rich a visual history as it does liturgical. The Mysteries of the Rosary provide is another. One of the best example of this series can be seen in the Sint-Pauluskerk in Antwerp. It features Rubens' Flagellation and Van Dyk's Bearing the Cross, among many other paintings. The scale and drama of the work draw in the viewer and encourage a level participation that words often fail to invoke. In terms of dramatic beauty, it's hard to out-do Rubens. But there are two paintings by Velazquez, made in competition to two works by Rubens. But Rubens' flair for the dramatic is hammy in a single figure. The Spaniard's storytellers however, Aesop and Menippus are quietly and stately beautiful in the way a single figure should be. It's this contemplative beauty that Lent brings to the liturgical calendar.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Kahnawake Wampum Belt

Reproduction of the Kahnawake Wampum

In one of his best known books, the historian Ernst Gombrich wrote that "There really is no such thing as Art. There are only Artists." It is later generations that will decide the important works human craftsmanship. Moreover, judgements are subject to revision. Anyone familiar with the life and work of Johannes Vermeer or Rembrandt will no doubt be familiar with the vicissitudes of an artist's notoriety. So to speak of the Art of the Mohawk is difficult because the artwork they created was not intended to be conceived in the way a western European conceives of a Rodin, or a Picasso.

That is not to diminish the beauty they created. Their artwork was meant to be experienced intimately. Their creations gave color and joy to the life of the community. Consider the wampum belts made by the Haudenosaunee. These were not merely decorative. They formed an important part of clan, tribe, and league diplomacy. Early communications between the Mohawk and the Dutch describe a wampum belt that ties the two societies together.

In 1677, the Mohawks of Kahnawake were given a wampum belt by the Hurons of Lorette. The belt was given, according the the Jesuits, as an encouragement to the faith of the Mohawk community. Iconographically, it is important because it marries the symbolism of European Catholicism with Haudenosaunee tradition.