Monday, December 19, 2011

What price (art) education?

I just recently heard yet another news story about a state (California) proposing to cut massive amounts of money to education (and you know art education is right up there at the top of the cut). Immediately following was a story about a deceased movie star’s jewels fetching over 100 million dollars at auction.  Okay, am I the only one who sees the irony in this? 100 million for jewels from an actor, while cutting millions from education? Where are these jewel-buyers when education is on the line? And if those buyers are from foreign countries, shame on them, too, because we’re in a world-wide recession. Unfortunately, it isn’t just 21st century entitlement. Has valuing the acquisition of art with a “pedigree” over the educating children always been the norm? Could somebody spending 9 million dollars on a ring possibly think of donating that much money to a local school district? Or another more worthy cause? Please!

To illustrate this point, let’s look at the case of Vincent van Gogh. During his lifetime, van Gogh struggled with acceptance as an artist and for sales. He epitomized the artist who loved nature and expressed that through his paintings. He also epitomized the artist who struggled to get his art recognized, but ended his life feeling he was a failure. He only sold one painting during his lifetime.

The last year of his death, van Gogh became recognized in many countries of northern Europe. Within a couple of years of his death, imitators appeared copying his work. By the 1920s, copies of van Gogh’s work clouded the true number of legitimate works attributable to the artist. So, within ten years of van Gogh’s death, people were making money from his style. (I’m sorry, but this doesn’t even look like an early van Gogh to me.) I think this is equally contemptible as people paying millions of dollars for Hollywood jewelry, no matter how beautifully it’s made.

As the income gap widens and people speak their minds about inequality, times such as these should help us reevaluate our priorities. Perhaps the “one percenters” of the world will finally see the value of quality education for all (and thus higher quality of life) over mere material possessions.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Looking at Stained Glass

Stained glass is predominantly a Western art form. When we think of stained glass, we think of Gothic cathedrals, right? Stained glass is believed to have originated from Byzantine (ca. 500 –1453) mosaics that used glass tesserae (squares of cut glass) in multiple colors. Stained glass began to adorn Western churches during the Medieval period (ca. 500–1300). The earliest examples remaining date from between 1000 and 1050. Stained glass was a significant art form from that period through most of the 16th century, primarily in Western religious structures. In Western art history books, stained glass disappears in writing until the mid- to late-nineteenth century. A renaissance in the art form began at that time. Brone Jameikis was a major force in stained glass art.

Two stylistic movements led to the rejuvenation of stained glass as a major art form in the West: Gothic Revival (flourished ca. 1830s–1860s), a style born out of the Romantic movement  in which any past style was fair game for imitation (the style was mostly in architecture and furniture); and the Arts and Crafts Movement (flourished 1860s to early 20th century), which was a conscious revival of past styles, particularly Medieval, with an emphasis on the quality of hand-crafted decorative arts as a reaction to mass-produced objects of the Industrial Revolution. Stained glass was a major factor in both movements, and, in the late nineteenth century, became increasingly a medium taken up by women.

In both the nineteenth and twentieth century, painters often began working in stained glass (including John La Farge), but the period saw the rise of artists dedicated to glass (such as Louis Comfort Tiffany). Into the 21st century, artists dedicated to stained glass abound. Jameikis is an artist whose body of work was primarily stained glass.

Jameikis was born in Vilnius, Lithuania. Her earliest memories of stained glass were of being fascinated with the windows of a Gothic church in Vilnius and the colors produced by the light going through them. That became a life-long fascination in her work. Jameikis worked primarily in slab glass, one inch thick pieces held together by epoxy resin rather than lead. While her works reflect an understanding of the structure of traditional stained glass, they also recall the fragmentation of form of modernist movements such as Cubism.
This window is an image of the Virgin Mary holding a lotus. The lotus was an ages old symbol of purity and spontaneous generation, both reflecting Mary’s position of divine birth in Christian doctrine. The thickness of the glass gives the piece a more luminous and glittering appearance than traditional stained glass because of the refractive qualities of slab glass. One of Jameikis’ most enduring monuments in stained glass is her work for the church of Saint Peter in Honolulu.

Activity: A faux stained glass panel. Materials: wax paper, crayons, black construction paper, glue, a hot iron. Have students design a relatively simple stained glass window, possibly abstract. Students shave various colors of crayons onto the wax paper (placed over a study drawing) following the shapes in the drawing, and cover the shavings with another piece of wax paper. Applying the hot iron to this will fuse the shavings together. Black construction paper can be then cut out to frame the various areas of color. 

Correlations to Davis programs:  Exploring Visual Design: 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 11; The Visual Experience: 10.9

Monday, December 5, 2011

My Love of Mosaics

I’ve been fascinated with mosaics since I took a tour of the upper mosaics of San Marco in Venice. I believe I never really stopped and thought about the intricate nature of the art form. I even saw mosaics designed by Tintoretto! However, the art form is not really the main point of this blog, although I will leave you with a technical description of the process. What fascinates me about the mosaics at Hammam-Lif (near Tunis) in Tunisia is what they represent in a broader sense about humanity. Here are Roman mosaic artists decorating a Jewish synagogue! There have always been points in history where cultures (regardless of religion) have co-existed peacefully and profitably! I’ll throw a few instances out: Nasrid (Islamic) Spain (1232–1492); Cochin, India; and yes, many cities within the vast Roman Empire. The lesson contemporary human beings have yet to learn is that we can learn from each other for mutual benefit.

As you all know, a mosaic is a pattern or picture made by embedding small pieces of stone or glass (the pieces are called tesserae) in cement on surfaces such as walls, floors, and ceilings. Mosaics seem to have originated in the Mediterranean region, primarily invented as inexpensive flooring of pebbles. Artisans soon discovered that pebbles of varying colors could be arranged to form decorative patterns. Pebble mosaics were popular throughout Roman times because pebbles were durable and cheap. Romans were interested in realism in their sculpture and painting, and desired mosaics, too, to have more pictorial realism. The Romans began cutting stones into desired shapes, which revolutionized mosaic-making.

Despite official intolerance, Jewish communities thrived throughout the Roman Empire.  Carthage, which the Romans wiped out in the BCEs, eventually was rebuilt (contemporary Tunis) as a major port and source of wheat and other commodities during the first century BCE.

Like many of the cities in the far flung regions of the empire, Tunis became a cosmopolitan center of art and cultural life, including a large, prosperous Jewish community. What is novel about Hammam-Lif is that synagogues were decorated with human and animal figures (frowned upon in most Israeli art in the ancient period).

Interestingly, the Jewish people (like the early Christians living within the Empire) had to rely on local (Roman) artists to decorate their synagogue. This mosaic is profoundly Roman in style, and the symbolism within a synagogue is an open question. What is amazing to me, regardless of where the Romans spread their influence: Look at the nuances of shading in the figure’s face! This was done by multi colored stones and clay tesserae!

Activity: Cut small squares out of pieces of different colors of construction paper. Pick out a design, such as a face, plant, or abstract pattern, and glue the squares to a black piece of paper. The black paper will form a background that can indicate lines within the design.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 3: 4.22; A Personal Journey: 2.1; Exploring Visual Design: 6, 11; The Visual Experience: 210-211; Discovering Art History: 6.3