You are currently browsing the monthly archive for December 2019.

I’m sorry for the paucity of posts this month.  To mark the end of the somewhat disappointing two thousand teens (the teens? the ’10s? how do we even write out that decade?), I have been in a seasonal creative slump.  This brown mood might not be solely a reaction to the lackluster decade (and the troubling path of ignorance and excess which humankind currently seems to be set upon), but also a reaction to the death of my first artistic mentor, my mother’s mother Constance Fay Pierson (April 24, 1927 to December 7, 2019).

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Grandma has a competently written obituary in the Weston Democrat which outlines her life of education and travel (although sweeping stories of Somalia, the Congo, Kenya, Italy, and Indonesia during the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s were obviously more thrilling to hear about in person). Likewise, the writer has indicated the primacy which family had in Grandma’s world by the simple expedient of naming everyone in her immediate lineage (although it is too bad that the pets Johnny, Flash, Muffy, & Pharaoh didn’t get a shout out, since they were family too). However, neither the obituary nor the eulogies at the funeral have done justice to Grandma’s creative and artistic life.  Since her encouragement, patronage, and teaching were instrumental to my own life path, I would like to share some of her lessons with you.

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The vivid beauty of the places she went was enormously important to Grandma Connie, and she was always remarking upon the unique characteristics of the clouds, the trees, the waves or the hills of a particular place at a particular time.  Grandma could paint and she made charming alla prima paintings of the places she went and the things which were most striking to her (I have included a picture of a North African dhow above and a road in Central Africa a few paragraphs below…but alas, I don’t know the dates).  She also had a deep love of the the sculptures of the ancient Mediterranean world, the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, and, above all, the paintings and drawings of Italy and France.  Since she lived outside Washington, we would go look at those works at the National Gallery or the Walters Museum when I was visiting her as a child.

Grandma showed me how she painted and she bought me my first real paint set at an art store outside of Annapolis. She made sure I had each of the fundamental necessary colors, cerulean, ultramarine, ochre, sienna, sap, Naples yellow, cadmium and alizarin red, white, and black…but when I also wanted a preposterous iridescent yellow with scintillant stuff in it, she bought that for me too.   It wasn’t so good for painting the Chesapeake Bay or the sky but it was great for portraying imaginary glowing dinosaurs or ancient divinities.

This was important because one of Grandma’s greatest talents was to see a boring hall and say”what if this hall was lined with suits of armor holding halberds and great swords?” or to look upon a squatly constructed house and say “it would be so beautiful if it had a cupola or a Gothic spire.” She could see things with her imagination!

Now nobody is likely to come along and build pagodas or widow’s walks upon the concrete & clapboard dime stores and garages of Clendenin, West Virginia, but the feasibility of such ideas was not necessarily the most important thing to Grandma. She loved the humor and the wild unpredictable joy of imagining such juxtapositions.

The secret key to endowing life with beauty and meaning is not necessarily lovely items or cross-referenced tomes, but observation first and then imagination–the rainbow-colored skeleton key which unlocks, well, everything.  In our world of store-bought imagination, everyone’s faces are glued to their computers & cell phones to see what color-by-numbers digital wonders Hollywood can whip up.  Grandma Connie always advocated looking at the beauty of the actual world, then, if such was insufficient for your amusement, she suggested juxtaposing it with fabulously dressed luminaries from all of world history or with amazing and beautiful animals.  If there was no actual ostrich just add one!

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At her funeral a stout bearded mountain man of West Virginia unexpectedly appeared and signed the mourning ledger. It was one of her students from when Grandpa was in Vietnam and Grandma was teaching high school French back in West Virginia.  He said “I never though of myself as a scholar, but Mrs. Pierson convinced me otherwise. I went to college because of her…and I majored in Romance languages!” Grandma would have been delighted to have influenced his lifepath towards scholarship, but she also would have been delighted by the unexpected juxtaposition of the man and the major.

We are going to need to mash a lot more unexpected ideas together if we are going to get anywhere. We need to make better use of our imaginations not just in art, but everywhere.  That is one of the major lessons of art!

I wish I could have written more about Grandma’s amazing life, or about the things we drew and talked about together.  I also wish I had told you more about her generosity, her erudition, or her elegance, but there is no time: I need to go draw some beautiful monasteries with the Tuscan moon…and some ichthyosaurs wearing feathered hats.  Grandma taught me that the beauty, significance, and grace of the past is never gone.  It lives on in art and can be summoned forth anew with additional creative enterprise.  The world’s beauty and the human imagination are both never-ending fountains of meaning and delight.  Thank you Grandma, for showing me his truth of art and life. Now to get to work on some never-seen juxtapositions to honor (and baffle) her spirit.

 

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It is the Yuletide and Ferrebeekeeper is relaxing away from the infernal computer…but it wouldn’t be right to leave the site unattended without a Christmas post, so here is a picture of me cooking an organic chicken so that my friend will come over and eat Mei Fun on Christmas (it turns out that the chicken was merely a free-range, vegetarian chicken which was untreated with steroids and antibiotics (which I don’t think they even give to chickens anyway), so we’ll see if she even participates in this holiday feast).  However, of greater interest than this gory (albeit festive) kitchen scene, below please find a picture of my sacred tree of life.  Not only is it hung with all manner of different animals from throughout the history of life, there is a very special midwinter animal contemplating its effulgent splendor!

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Today’s newspapers, op-ed websites, and blather channels are filled with agonizing editorials and Pollyanna-ish laments about how Democrats have made a terrible political miscalculation and now Donald Trump will win the election of 2020 (and probably ultimately fulfill his Fascist quest towards becoming the first Emperor of America).  I am indeed troubled by the large minority of Americans who seem incapable of understanding just how terrible the President’s actions are.  If selling out the United States and our allies to our enemies in order to win an election is acceptable behavior in the myopic eyes of Trump’s supporters, then what exactly would be impeachable?  Obviously, nothing will ever cause 38% of voters to turn against this criminal buffoon.

However, it is a bit of a mistake to blame the Democrats for how events have unfolded and then give in utterly to despair.  Knowing what we now know, Democrats must impeach Trump or else they will also be accomplices to this criminal administration.  In the future, when Trump is finally gone (a day which will ineluctably arrive, no matter what today’s Chicken Little pundits say) we will pore through all the records and unravel all of Trumps corrupt webs and confidence schemes. Undoubtedly when everything is laid bare, everyone will then ask why the Democrats didn’t push harder to impeach this scoundrel much earlier.

The unexpected results of the disastrous 2016 election were such a shock that many journalists and opinion-makers now have Stockholm syndrome and secretly believe Trump can never be removed from office no matter what. This victim-blaming mentality needs to stop.  Democrats are not the problem and are doing the best they can in a disastrous political landscape where the GOP has abandoned all standards of decency and Constitutional responsibility. The Republicans are knowingly abetting the President’s brazen criminality.  Nobody should ever vote for a Republican for any office until they renounce Trumpism completely (and maybe cease their other norm-destroying, anti-Democratic misbehavior as well).

Today is a sad day for our democracy.  Our various failsafes have failed. Our secondary education system has likewise failed (and obviously it has been a failure for a long time): nobody other than crooked multi-millionaire oligarchs should ever have voted for Trump.  The fact that millions of otherwise normal people are so scared and lost within the PR blitz of lies that they embrace this American Mussolini illustrates that we have huge ground level educational reforms to add to our to-do-list of breaking up monopolies and reforming our sclerotic electoral system.

But these reforms will not be accomplished right now, and the best Democrats can do at this moment is their constitutional duty (you know, to counterbalance a dangerous demagogic grifter).  Cheating and lying might gain the Republicans a few poll points in the short term, but it will come back to haunt hem (so long as the republic holds together).  It is also worth remembering that tyrants (and Trump is definitely a tyrant–albeit a stupid, incurious, and unambitious tyrant) tend to fall with exponential speed.  To those who love liberty and justice, it may seem that his world of bribery, coercion, harassment, intimidation, extortion, and treachery will always guarantee his victory.  It doesn’t.  Once cracks begin to appear in a tyrant’s carefully spackled façade of mendacity, the fissures tend to widen rapidly exposing the rot within.  Trump’s rotten world of fiscal corruption and subservience to Russia is not hidden very deep.  It will bring him crashing to his true level (exile in Russia? Prison?) before too much time has passed.  On that day Republicans will regret their cowardice and trembling toadyism.  Democrats will be glad they didn’t listen to today’s hyperventilating pundits but instead did what was right and impeached this corrupt president.

Have courage! Do not give in to despair and fatigue.  Pundits who despise the president yet demand legislators never call him to account are dangerous.  Whereas we know the president is a knave and his supporters will not be swayed by actual evidence, these journalists (who see no path to victory for the 60% of the electorate who despise the president!) are sowing discord and confusion among their own side.  They are bringing their worst fears alive with panicky words.

Being afraid is why we are in the mess we are in.  Becoming more afraid is not the solution.

Today’s news is good.  Trump is a criminal who needs to be impeached and removed from office.  He may not be removed right away, but putting the evidence we currently have on the record (and carefully recording the astonishing perfidy of the GOP for the history books) is a painful but necessary step to being rid of him for good.  Even more importantly, acknowledging the truth in accordance with the dictates of the Constitution is the best way to start digging our way out of the political crisis which we are all trapped in.

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We are nearing the darkest time of the year, and I wanted to post some Gothic architecture all lit up with festive lights, but, though I searched and searched, the Gothic Revival mansions of my fantasy just weren’t out there on the internet.  There were some actual Gothic cathedrals from the middle ages which were all lit up with lasers though!  Here is a little holiday gallery.  We’ll see if we can scrape up some better content tomorrow (and let me know if you find a site with Gothic cottages all lit up for Christmas).  Oh! If it Christmas-themed Gothic architecture you need you could always go back in time and check out this Gothic gingerbread post from yesteryear’s Yuletide!

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Pigeon on a Peach Branch(桃鳩圖,桃鳩図 [ja]), (Emperor Huizong) ink and color on silk hanging

This rather beautiful pigeon on a peach branch is a superb and ancient example of the bird-flower painting which has been such a mainstay of Chinese art.  The small ink and color painting is on a piece of silk mounted on a hanging scroll.  The artist completed the work during the Northern Song dynasty around the turn of the 12th century BC.  Each of these bird-flower paintings is meant to impart a sort of allegorical moral lesson, although I confess that I cannot understand what is meant by the lovely colorful (and plumply self-satisfied) pigeon seated next to the one opened peach blossom as winter turns haltingly to spring.

But who cares if the moral lesson of the work is too subtle for us? Not only is it a lovely painting with all the strength of Song dynasty art, the painter was remarkable in his own right.   Zhao Ji was born into the greatest luxury imaginable and spent the first half of his life becoming one of China’s greatest literati painters.  Unfortunately, his brother, Emperor Zhezong, the 7th emperor of the Song Dynasty, died without a son, and Zhao Ji was forced to take on the quotidian responsibilities of running China in a addition to his cultural and calligraphic practice (and working on his exquisite paintings). Zhao Ji ascended to the throne in 1100 as Emperor Huizong of Song, and although he is fondly remembered as one of China’s greatest painters, he was also one of China’s worst emperors.  After abdicating in favor of his son, he was captured by Jurchens in 1126 and became a sad pawn of the duplicitous Jin Empire (a foreign “counter empire” based in the north which opposed the Song and set up the conditions for the Mongol conquest of a broken China.

The lesson here could that having a person who should be doing something else run your enormous empire is a big mistake…or maybe that dividing your country into two battling states sets a nation up for disaster, however I choose to read Emperor Huizong’s story as an artist’s tale of great success at bird flower painting.

16_chos rje de bzhin gshegs paThe Karmapa is a very important Lama/guru of Tibetan Buddhism and acts as the head of the Karma Kagyu (the black hat school), the largest sub-school of Himalayan Buddhism.  According to tradition, the first Karmapa, Düsum Khyenpa (1110–1193 AD) was such a gifted and sedulous scholar (and so very, very holy) that he attained enlightenment at the age of fifty while practicing dream yoga. To his adherents, the Karmapa is seen as a manifestation of Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas (not to me though, I prefer to think of Avalokiteśvara as the luminous Kwan Yin, not as some sad middle-aged Chinese puppet).

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Ahem, anyway, due to religious and political controversy so convoluted and schismatic that it would make an antipope blush, the identity of the 17th (current) Karmapa is disputed.  This matters little to us though, for our purposes today, which, as you maybe guessed from the title, involve the Karmapa’s remarkable headress, the black crown.  As implied by its heavy metal name, the black crown’s roots are said to lie beyond this world. According to folklore, the black crown was woven by the dahinis (sacred female spirits of Vajrayana Buddhism) from their own gorgeous black hair. They gave this gift to the Karmapa in recognition of his spiritual attainment.  The 5th Karmapa was a tutor to the Yongle Emperor (arguably China’s greatest emperor) and the wily emperor claimed that he could see the immaterial black crown above the Karmapa’s head.  The Yongle Emperor was sad that lesser mortals could not perceive this ineffable headdress and so he had a worldly facsimile made for the Karmapa, not out of the hair of dahinis, but instead from coarser materials such as rubies, gold, and precious stones. That’s it, up there at the top of this paragraph (adorning the head of the 16th Karmapa).

I wish I could show you a better picture of the jeweled hat which the Yongle Emperor commissioned for all Karmapas, past, present, and future (fake and real?), but unfortunately, some of the political strife of Tibet, China, and India is reflected in the provenance of the sacred item.   The 16th Karmapa brought the black crown to a monastery in (Indian) Sikkim during the tumult of the 1960s when China’s relationship with ancient cultural traditions grew rather fraught.  When the 16th Karmapa transcended this mortal world in 1993, the crown went missing. It has not been seen since, but one hopes it might reappear at some point when the true 17th Karmapa is revealed (or when all contenders are gone and we move on to the 18th Karmapa).  Alternately, perhaps a careful inventory of Rumtek monastery will cause it to turn up.

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Holy Han Blue! It is already time for the color of the year for 2020!  How did it get to be so late?  The color of the year is obviously a Pantone publicity stunt…and yet, in a fashion-market/artworld way, it tracks larger socioeconomic factors.  During boom times the colors are all coral, gold, and claret; when the economy falls into the abyss they become asphalt, storm clouds, and lunar regolith.  This year’s color is a flashing warning signal.  The 2020 color of the year, Classic Blue, is an ancient neutral middle level cobalt blue.  It looks exactly like what a court geomancer would pick to sooth a mad emperor…just before the realm explodes into civil war. Or. in the ugly patter of finance, this color looks like an inverted yield curve just before the sell-off.  It is a deeply conservative color pretending to have some pizzazz (similar to “Blue Iris”, the color of 2008).

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This is one of the results I got trying to image search this color.

It is worthwhile though, to note how the professional flacks at Pantone talk about this depressing reactionary selection.  They speak very carefully to forestall any criticism that it is, well, a depressing reactionary selection.  Although blue has represented melancholia to artists, poets, and designers  for four centuries (or longer), Leatrice Eiseman, the executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, which apparently researches and advises companies on human responses to color said, “I think that’s kind of an older generation reaction.” So Pantone wants you to know that if you dislike the ugly neutral blue which they chose for the coming recession, you are old and out of touch. They also note that this is not a subtle endorsement of the Democratic Party (apparently, like every large business in the country, they enthusiastically endorse and promote the fascist Republican party).

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But politics and economics aside, what do we make of Classic Blue? Blue is not actually the top color on my personal list, but it is good for neutral backgrounds and for blending in. Dark blues like “classic blue” don’t show dirt as badly as some colors.  Classic blue might be good for a daily table cloth or a bathroom mat or a shower curtain.  It would be lovely for a twilight sky around a pleasure garden (although Pantone isn’t marketing it for that, as far as I could tell from their blather).  The real color of 2020 should be chaotic darkness shot through with nauseating flecks of painful brightness, like somebody smashed a sorcerer’s crystal (or like a riot after the teargas).  I recognize that Pantone is hard pressed to choose a perfect color to match that, but, as always they have done as well as possible in trying circumstances.  Any bets yet for the color of the year for 2021?

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There is a scene in the Harry Potter books when all the hidden wizards are gathered together, and they start using more and more ostentatious magic to show off (thus flouting the astringent & terrifying rules of the hegemonic ruling conclave).  The senior adult wizard turns to the protagonists and observes, “Always the same…We can’t resist showing off when we get together.”

I suspect a lot of readers are smugly noting that wizards aren’t really real, (which is true), but those books were about very real things, and I feel like Arthur Weasley hit directly upon one of humankind’s biggest issues.  Most of the things we work for don’t actually have much to do with our actual needs, but involve instead the desperate struggle for higher status. Showing off is what humans do.

This quest is woven through every human endeavor: the gardener trying to hybridize a novel color of rose, the actor trying to be even more intensely emotional, and the fashionista trying to wear ever-more extravagant get-ups are all trying to aggrandize their social standing by impressing the right people.  However not only are people part of a status game when they are doing what they themselves are good at: they are part of somebody else’s status game when they do pretty much anything.

When you spend all day working on moronic busywork at an ugly office, you are really a fractional part of a column of some CEO’s spreadsheet which is about him making more money. The great masters are hoarding all of the world’s wealth so they can buy tacky mansions, Bugattis, and super yachts, yes, but mostly so they can point to a number on a computer screen to impress other super oligarchs.

There is nothing wrong with this per se.  Human life is quite complicated and we need ways to quantify who the high status apes are (so that we can apportion resources and mates and what not). Isn’t it better we show off with hybridized roses and new fashions and financial acumen then with battle prowess and physical violence?

Well yes it probably is; but I worry that the oceans are filling with plastic and the atmosphere with carbon because we are not managing this mad primate howl of SELF SELF SELF very well at all. We could be having status battles over scholarship and science rather than the nakedly venal and meretricious (and consumerist!) contests which most of us seem engaged in.

Something I want to write more about is “the red queen effect”, the idea that you have to compete harder and harder and harder to maintain the same relative place.  The term comes from the realm of evolutionary biology where it betokens the concept that ptarmigans have to fly faster to avoid gyrfalcons and thus gyrfalcons have to fly faster to catch these faster ptarmigans: soon everyone is flying much faster! [an even more germane example vis a vis human status relationships might be the Irish Elk’s mighty antlers: which were apparently a sexual display]. Human society is a synthetic ecosystem of sorts.  The constant future shock we now live in doesn’t just have to do with the rapid advance of technology.  It has to do with the proliferation of new realms of status posing. Not only are you failing to keep up with the Joneses: You are failing to keep up with everyone! Quick! Buy more plastic crap!  this feedback loop impacts us in ways which are so universal they swiftly become unnoticeable [stops writing and checks site stats and posts to Instagram]. Then we wonder why we are spending all day doing things we despise and somehow using up the Earth in the process.  I want to write more about some of the ramifications of this and we can brainstorm about we can maybe channel this inextinguishable competitive status drive in more productive directions.

Also, please follow me on my Instagram account!

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My apologies for all of the visual posts this week!  I got caught up in the Christmas crush, and had less time than I wanted to write a ringing denunciation of Russian sleeper agents and dupes in the executive and legislative branches of government, but, speaking of Russia, I decided to look for images of crowned swans (in vague memory of a disturbing folktale from the Volga).   I never found the crowned swan I was looking for, but instead I found…this thing pictured here…the king of all pool floaties.   I guess if you and your 7 friends want to enjoy some swim beverages and a foot bath while cavorting inside a 17 foot monster plastic folktale about the ephemeral nature of beauty, well, now you know how to do that!  We will return to regularly scheduled programming tomorrow. In the mean time here are some more photos of the majestic pool toy. Good grief, it is incredible!  I wonder if it would fit on my parents’ goose pond…

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Speaking of the holiday season, one of the pleasures which the New York City Department of Transportation offers is “seasonal streets” when swaths of the public thoroughfare are closed off to automobile traffic for the sole use of pedestrians and bicyclists.   “Seasonal Streets” also provide an opportunity for artists to put up colorful temporary work directly on the surface of the road.

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Here is a swath of Nassau Street between John Street and Fulton Street which has been given the seasonal treatment.  Vendors are starting to set up little holiday shops and pavilions (although I worry about how much custom they will find on cold snowy days like today).  Looking south (picture below) you can make out a famous New York taxicab which is advertising an underworld theme show… (?) as it drives beneath some of downtown’s equally enigmatic comic book punching holiday decorations.

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Even despite the sloppy weather the scene is quite festive (while still maintaining a special concrete canyon/Blade Runner feel). Thanks DOT! This (almost) makes me want to hang out more in the financial district!

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