Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Rare Books tour @ Phila Free Library/SCIENCE in the basement of the Upenn Museum

Yesterday Sarah and I went to the Free Library to take a tour of the Rare Books section, particularly to view their German/PA Dutch Fraktur. They had recently had a symposium on this amazing stuff (sadly we missed it) and everything was still on display. Sarah and I share a great love for PA Dutch art - hex signs, crafts, fraktur - and this tour was part of some research for a collaborative project we're cooking up. So, here's some examples of the fraktur on display. Excuse the fuzziness; there was no flash allowed.

This collection of fraktur is the PA Dutch populations take on their "old world" illuminated texts. Everyone did this. The small books were typically done by children. They were given a blank book and had to fill it with their lessons. Fraktur was the immigrants way of bringing the "old country" into the "new world". It must have been a source of comfort to them in a strange new place.

The image on the bottom is a particular favorite. It was done by a child but whoever he/she was, they were an extremely skilled draftsman.

We also saw many other awesome things. Our guide took us through a very abbreviated history of books and paper (starting at Egyptian papyrus and ending with books as we know them today). We also saw the Elkins' library, which was completely moved and reinstalled in the Philadelphia Free Library, right down to the wood posts holding the floor boards together. Wowzaa. Upon entering this spacious library, I instantly felt at home. Yes, this is the home I want: rich heavy wood, open spaces, cozy warm lights, and plenty of quirky details.

Our guide talking to a couple other folks on our tour. And in the picture on the bottom, you can't see it that well, but the writing desk on the right of that photo is the very desk that Charles Dickens wrote at.

Elkins was a collector of Americana, and all those framed pictures are prints with hand coloring dating from the early days of our country. Two of them were made by Paul Revere (yes, that one. The red coats are coming!).

Sarah posing by the fire place. Also, the model boats around the library are known as "fantasy" boats. They aren't modeled after any boat in particular, but were a hobby of Elkins. I like the idea of fantasy or imaginary boats. Might try to develop a project or series around that.

Elkins liked weird lamps. These are made from tobacco jars. He had others that were large metal tea barrels. I'm a big fan of these lamps too.

This is the grave stone of Charles Dickens' daughters' pet bird, Dick. He was the "Best of Birds".

Now, let me tell you about today! Today, during my on-going internship at Upenn's Museum of Anthropology and Archeology, I got to do some science. I learned today how to make "B72" which, according to my fearless leader, Dr. Lynn Grant, is extremely imperative to know. Apparently when she travels to other countries to work on archeology projects, one of the first things she learns in the local language is "B72".
Anyway, basically is Acetone mixed with a plastic.....D...something....I'll have to ask Nina again (she's a contract conservationist at the lab). BUT, I mixed some today. First you decide the proportions of Acetone to D? and then measure out your plastic on a scale. I was making a 5% solution, which would mean 95% Acetone. So, I measured out my materials, and learned the fine art of mixing. You don't just plop your junk into the Acetone. What you do is you put your plastic pellets into a little cheesecloth satchel you rig to the top of your glass jar. You want your satchel to just slightly dip into the surface of your Acetone. Suspended thus, you can actually see the plastic break down and "rain" into the Acetone. Then you wait about an hour for this to mix together. After you've gotten your B72, you do whatever it is you wanted to do with it.

In my case, I wanted to see if I couldn't preserve some dried flowers. See, I love dried flowers, but they are so delicate. And I want to do some projects with dried flowers, but the only solutions I could think of to preserve them and make them stronger was stuff like resin or something. This usually results in a look I'm not too fond of, which is sort of blobby and very shiny. I've seen plenty of jewelry made of resin preserved flower blossoms, and while it's pretty, it's not quite reaching the level of craftsmanship that would convince me of laying my money down. The flowers look more like "flower shapes" or their encased in a cube of resin that, while it allows the flower to look more like real flowers, you loose the tactile wonder of holding a delicate flower in your hand. So, Nina suggested the B72, which means SCIENCE TIME.

So I dunked my flowers in my jar of B72. They will rest there until Monday, hopefully allowing the B72 to saturate into the petals and such of the flowers. On Monday, we'll be making the jar into a vacuum to get any extra bubbles and such that might be trapped between petals, etc. Then the flowers will stay in the vacuumed jar until Wednesday, at which point we'll see which of them survived and to what degree. Whatever looks good will probably become a piece of jewelry (a brooch or necklace or something) for Nina as "thank you!" for her helpfulness and constant entertainment value.

Flowers swimming in B72.

In other news, LOOK AT THIS!

These are crushed skulls from Queen Puabi's burial site in ancient Ur. The top one is some guy with a metal helmet. If you look closely, his helmet looks like it's patterned with reeds. This happened when the reeds fell over his helmet and pressed together. Over time, the metal actually took on the texture of the leaves. The leaves didn't press into the metal. Metal, I'm learning, does many weird things as it degrades over time.
The other skull is either another priestess or a handmaiden of Queen Puabi. She's wearing a whole lot of gold and lapis (the blue beads and details). The burial site of Queen Puabi has something like 70 bodies in it, and the running theory now is that they were bludgeoned to death and buried with the queen. Common thought was that her servants drank poison and then peacefully laid down in her burial chamber. But that changed when the scatter of the bodies was reevaluated. It's thought that if these folks had gone peacefully, they'd be laid out in nice neat rows, looking all peaceful-like. Instead, folks are scatter around the place, probably dying where they fell after their heads were smashed in. YIKES. Queen Puabi didn't wait for her staff to die and join her in the after life. She had them killed and took them with her. Now THAT'S a QUEEN.

Here's Nina working on the handmaiden:

Hi Nina!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Crane Curtain

So, for a couple years now I've been folding origami cranes, as a somewhat mindless, easy and fun thing to do when I need to take a break from my more serious art-making. Then I started stringing them with beads. Then these strung-up cranes were sort of living on hooks across my fireplace, not really doing much. They looked pretty but they were just this mass color and points. So I finally put these cranes on a dowel rod and hung them on our side window. I really like this solution because while I love having the window and curtains open to let in the breeze, it's rather annoying that the 2nd and 3rd floor apartments have their stairwell right outside. It's weird to have folks running up and down and looking in on me while I'm eating at the table or something. So, now that the cranes are up, things are obscured and perhaps my neighbors won't be as tempted to just casually peer in (it's difficult not to look while climbing the stairs).

Friday, September 18, 2009

Progress. Slow, painstaking, delicate progress.

I do not think it's any coincidence that hardanger embroidery contains the word "danger". Nope. I delayed this project for a couple months because I was terrified. And I figured that just going in there and starting would somehow assuage this terror. And indeed no, it's not. My fear is like a large and stinky onion, or maybe like an ogre. Or a parfait.

Yuck. I hate that "All-Star" song at the end. But you get the point.

And so I'm discovering that my fear and terror regarding hardanger embroidery has layers upon layers. This is mainly due to the rather unforgiving nature of hardanger embroidery (what with the actual cutting and pulling of threads and creating artful holes in one's fabric). And like any near-debilitating fear, one must face it head-on or it'll take up permanent residence in one's psyche.

So, instead of me working firmly along the outer most edges of this piece, I've dared to dig in further; to about 1.5" in from the edge. Oh, and I've started concretely planning out the huge opening in the middle. So, go me! It's been hours of work, though you may not be able to tell much difference. That's OK. I know it's there and eventually you'll see it too. The open bar running along the bottom of the photo is new.

And hopefully in a week's time, there will be significant changes to this piece.

For fun, here's Ruby, my constant companion and biggest non-human fan:

Whoah, girl. Settle down!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Sea Monsters: Misplaced and Irrational Fears

Hello all,
it's been a while. During my radio silence I've been chugging away at my internship at the Museum of Anthropology and Archeology, looking for new employment, and teaching myself how to cook. I'm constantly inspired by this website:

In other news, I'm finally ready to embark on my next series. Sometimes I get frustrated at how long it takes for me to start projects, and sometimes I artificially push myself, which only results in a false start. When I finally realize that I should just wait until I'm ready, I remember the sage advice of Mark Twain about "letting the well fill". That's how he'd describe the time between his books, as allowing his well to fill once more. And of course, that takes time.

Curiously enough, my impatience to start the next round of projects lays at odds with the very processes I employ for my projects. I seem to find the most tedious and time-consuming methods for my works and this round will be no different. Sigh...

So, one day I went to the library to look up books on embroidery and stumbled upon one that talks about "hardanger" or "Norwegian Drawn Work" or open embroidery. It's like a weird hybrid between cross stitch and embroidery, with wholly unique results. It's history isn't all that well documented but it was popular during the Renaissance. I've not really seen much recent hardanger work, but the books I found on it relegate it mostly to the "housewife crafty embellishment" realm of fancy napkins and tablecloths. This isn't a bad thing, just amusing to me.

After many, many hours of work over the past few days, I'm only this far.
My hands protest these tiny repetitive stitches.

Which leads me to a recent thought I've been kicking around regarding my own art methods. I never for a moment growing up thought that the artist I would become would be one who swims mostly in "women's work" waters, but here I am. I fancied myself a budding painter or sculptor or printmaker or something less "crafty" in nature. Though I shouldn't be surprised. My home is decorated with many of the crewel work pieces my Nana made throughout her life, ones I remember staring at as a little girl visiting my Pop-pop after my Nana had passed. Nana did a lot of crewel work, a bedspread being her largest and crowning achievement. Pop-pop used to refer to it as her "6¢ per inch" work because of the many hours it took to make and how if the piece was to be sold for a reasonable amount, Nana would have to have paid herself something abysmally small.

Some of Nana's crewel work, including my birth announcement! (center photo, lower left corner).

Aside from Nana's crewel work pieces, my own mother is really into another sort of "women's work" - quilting. And the other side of my art-making, aside from the stitching and embroidery I do, is the dyeing and production of my own fabrics. My mother is a quilter not because she loves the stitching, but rather her adoration of fabrics: their designs and colors and textures has lead her down this path. She compulsively purchases fabrics, especially recently the William Morris reproductions, which she's not done anything with. She'll just take her fat quarters out of storage and fan the William Morris fabrics across a bed and stare at them, delighting in the designs and patterns. And honestly, can you blame her?

And so it seems that my Nana and my mother (Nana is her mother) are key influences in what I love to do nowadays. It's funny too, because I wouldn't have counted either of them among those that influenced my art-making up until very recently. But then again, you never know where life will lead you.

Leading lastly to the project at hand. I'm teaching myself hardanger embroidery to complete a series of "portraits" of "sea monsters". Now there are sea creatures out there that look bizarre and scary but aren't particularly dangerous. Then there are the REAL dangerous creatures out there that can KILL you, but they don't look like much, like, uh....cone shells. No teeth or spines or other sharp parts, no creepy milky eyes and they don't move fast (or much at all it seems), but the venom collected from just one of these things could kill up to 700 people. Insane!

So my portraits will have the hardanger used as a Victorian-inspired ornamental frame. This frame will be layered on top of a second hand-dyed fabric of mine, which will peek out of the many lacy holes and such I put into my hardanger fabric. The 2nd layer will have an embroidered portrait of sea creatures, though I'm grappling with which side of the "danger divide" I'll play with. See, in my research, I found it interesting what we place our fears in. Ask anyone what's the scariest creature in the ocean and they might say something like "Shark!" or "Giant Squid!", whereas they may not even know what a box jelly is (though apparently Will Smith kills himself in that movie "7 Pounds" with a box jelly, so more people have an awareness of these animals now thanks to that unfortunate film). Anyway, box jellies kill more people per year than sharks, stonefish (another rather dangerous sea creature) and crocodiles combined. They are small and delicate creatures and need the brute force of their poison to instantly kill their prey. A to-the-death struggle would kill theses jellies otherwise. So in this, what do you fear more? The shark or the jelly?

I'm misunderstood.

I will kill you.

This leads me to mediate on misplaced and irrational fears. It's irrational to fear a shark unless you're a surfer or diver specifically going into known shark territories. Same with the jellies. But we get into cars everyday, and car accidents kill more people per year than sharks and box jellies combined, many fold. One can apply this to anything from what you eat (poor diet = diabetes, heart disease, cancer, etc and yet, tons of us still reach for McDonald's) to current events, political leaders, etc. We lay our fears into certain things, but rarely do we take a step back and assess WHY we fear these things. Are they worth our fear? And perhaps reevaluating where our fears reside and understanding the WHY and HOW we fear might help us realize we're fearing the wrong (or right) things? For while we may fear the shark (a wholly misunderstood animal in my opinion), our expenditure might allow something really worth our fear to go unnoticed for longer than we should allow (say, lead paint on kid toys or the rising number of e. coli outbreaks in our supposedly safe food). Misplaced fears lead to fighting the wrong fights and letting the real dangers take hold.

And so I'm making these portraits that I definitely delight in and enjoy, but hold for me an important intellectual exercise applicable to any issue or situation: is my reaction (or yours or anyone's) of fear really well placed? Or is my misplaced fear a wonderful opportunity for a real danger to take advantage of?

Fear or folly? Mislaid fear indeed. Nay-sayers should be thankful they can even do this sort of stuff because ACTUAL ruling under Hitler and Stalin would have found folks shot in the street like dogs for less than this depiction.
Oh the folly of misplaced fears....