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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.

 

imageEvery year around Saint Patrick’s Day, we delve into Irish folklore to feature alarming mythological beings from the Emerald Isles. Nothing has beaten the frolicsome (yet oddly troubling) leprechauns in terms of popularity, however last year’s post about the sluagh–an airborne host of dark spirits which come from the otherworld–was certainly much creepier. This year gets darker still (well, at least for some of us) as we explore the leannán sídhe, a dark temptress who preys on disaffected writers, artists, and creative folk! Argh! Seriously, did Irish mythmakers have a picture of me on the whiteboard when they came up with this stuff?

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The leannán sídhe was thought of as a woman of the aos sídhe (the otherworld folk) who would assume mortal form as an inhumanly beautiful woman. She would take an artist or poet as a lover and offer them inspiration in exchange for love and devotion. With her wit, intelligence, and affection she would inspire their craft. With her supernatural beauty she would bind them to her and become their muse. Yet the relationship would become more and more oppressive and intense until the artist became consumed with obsession for her. Once the artist was besotted to the point of madness, the leannán sídhe would disappear. The abandoned mortal lover would suffer from intense despair and either pine to death or commit suicide. After the artist was dead, the leannán sídhe would reappear and take make off with the corpse which she would take back to her underground lair. There she would hang the body up from a hook on her ceiling and drain the artist’s blood into a huge red cauldron. This cauldron of blood was the source of her everlasting life, youth, and beauty.

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Once we set aside the casual misogyny which floats atop the surface of this myth, it reveals its deeper meaning: the myth of the leannán sídhe evokes the artist’s primal fear of the contemporary art market where laughing art dealers, gallerists, and corporations drain the artist of their creative vitality and then profit from it. Better to labor away in poverty and anonymity then deal with these terrifying forces.

Argh! God help us!

Argh! God help us!

Wait…ugh… this can’t be right! What is up with these fiendish Irish myths? Maybe next year I had better celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day by writing about something less frightening, bloody, or controversial—maybe Irish politics…

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Lovecraft's Nightmare (Painting by Michael Whelan)

Lovecraft’s Nightmare (Painting by Michael Whelan)

Even among modern folk with our science, technology and networked thinking machines, dreams possess an unearthly and overwhelming power. To state this bluntly: nightmares can be terrifying to a degree unrivaled by anything save the most terrible moments of trauma or devastating personal loss.

In nightmares I have watched our lovely world of nitrogen skies, teaming oceans, and green forests snuffed out in an instant by ghastly void. As a ghost, I have swum through oceans of plague skeletons each of which glittered with unwholesome light. Worst of all, with mine own hands I have poured oil on my chanting followers and touched the torch to them and exalted as together we burned like fat in a fire.

And it was all just dreams, of course it was. But, oh! it seemed so horribly real…

「菌類学者Hの誤算」  パネルにテンペラ、油彩  1988年 1621x970mm

「菌類学者Hの誤算」  パネルにテンペラ、油彩  1988年 1621x970mm

Awaking from such visions, it is difficult not to see the hand of providence writing out the dire warnings of destiny. In ancient times, when science did not exist to explain the world, people thought exactly that—that the gods communicated through dreams.

Dream augury is mentioned in the most ancient Mesopotamian texts as well as throughout ancient Egyptian writings. In both the Iliad and Odyssey, the gods communicate with mortals through dreams (in the Iliad, beautifully, false dreams fly to the world from a gate of ivory, but real ones go through the gate of horn). Even the first book of the Bible has the following story, where the reader goes into Pharaoh’s dreams with him.

And it came to pass at the end of two full years, that Pharaoh dreamed: and, behold, he stood by the river. And, behold, there came up out of the river seven well favoured kine and fatfleshed; and they fed in a meadow. And, behold, seven other kine came up after them out of the river, ill favoured and leanfleshed; and stood by the other kine upon the brink of the river. And the ill favoured and leanfleshed kine did eat up the seven well favoured and fat kine. So Pharaoh awoke. And he slept and dreamed the second time: and, behold, seven ears of corn came up upon one stalk, rank and good. And, behold, seven thin ears and blasted with the east wind sprung up after them. And the seven thin ears devoured the seven rank and full ears. And Pharaoh awoke, and, behold, it was a dream. And it came to pass in the morning that his spirit was troubled; and he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt, and all the wise men thereof: and Pharaoh told them his dream; but there was none that could interpret them unto Pharaoh.

Then spake the chief butler unto Pharaoh, saying, I do remember my faults this day: Pharaoh was wroth with his servants, and put me in ward in the captain of the guard’s house, both me and the chief baker: And we dreamed a dream in one night, I and he; we dreamed each man according to the interpretation of his dream. And there was there with us a young man, an Hebrew, servant to the captain of the guard; and we told him, and he interpreted to us our dreams; to each man according to his dream he did interpret. And it came to pass, as he interpreted to us, so it was; me he restored unto mine office, and him he hanged.

Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they brought him hastily out of the dungeon: and he shaved himself, and changed his raiment, and came in unto Pharaoh.

Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams as an omen of coming climate change: the seven fat cows are seven years of plentiful harvest while the seven starving cows represent a terrible drought. Only by long-term planning can the political leadership of Egypt avert humanitarian crisis (coincidentally, it is a story which makes me wonder if the most stridently religious folk have even paused to think about their favorite text).

Joseph Interprets Pharaoh's Dream

Joseph Interprets Pharaoh’s Dream

Dreams are the most numinous experience we are likely to have. It is very hard not to be like Pharaoh and see portents of the future in the strange imagery of dreams. However for all of the time that dreams are filled with apocalyptic farm animals or oracular produce, they are just as often filled with the Flintstones, sailboards, toothpaste, the girl from algebra class, Honda hatchbacks and suchlike detritus of one’s personal experience and/or contemporary mass culture.

Sigmund Freud, the doyenne of dream interpretation in the contemporary(ish) world, believed that our dreams and nightmares revealed truths hidden by the conscious mind. In the symbolic language of dream imagery, we are able to put together patterns which are obscure (or distasteful or forbidden)—at least according to Freud.

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Naturally I am an adherent of science and reason. I hold no truck with imaginary supernatural beings such as ghosts and gods. Yet dreams constitute  phenomena which I have experienced—which we have all experienced-which can and do stand outside the ordinary mundane frame of reference.  Even if they are not sent by Hypnos or Yahweh, it seems wise to allow dreams to influence what you create and desire…and what you are afraid of.

As the poet said, “Learn from your dreams what you lack”

Orpheus with animals. (Roman mosaic ca. 200-250 AD)

Orpheus with animals. (Roman mosaic ca. 200-250 AD)

Orpheus was a Thracian…and a mortal.  His mother was Calliope, Muse of heroic poetry.  Different versions of his story differ as to whether his father was a Thracian king or Morpheus, god of dreams.  Thanks to the tutelage of his parents, or perhaps because of his own astonishing gifts, Orpheus could play music more beautifully than words can express. Wherever he went, people would fall under the spell of the golden notes flowing from his lyre and the unbridled beauty of his divine voice.  Animals were transfixed by his music and even trees would lean in closer to hear his songs. Because of the power of his art, Orpheus had a pleasant life which was largely free of care.  He grew up doted upon by his mother and his many gifted aunts. He met a beautiful woman, Eurydice and the two fell deeply in love.  Their pastoral wedding was an event of unbridled happiness and Orpheus, beside himself with delight, played the most joyous music the world had yet known.

Orpheus And Eurydice (Louis Ducis, 1826, oil on canvas)

Orpheus And Eurydice (Louis Ducis, 1826, oil on canvas)

In merry abandon, the bride danced bare-footed in a meadow and there she stepped on a snake which reared up and stung her.  Eurydice sank to the ground and the guests, not seeing what had transpired, laughed at her intoxication, but Eurydice did not rise.  She was dead.  Her spirit had fled away.

Eurydice Stung by a Serpent  from Les Métamorphoses (Pablo Picasso, 1930, print)

Eurydice Stung by a Serpent from Les Métamorphoses (Pablo Picasso, 1930, print)

Then Orpheus went mad with grief.  He wandered off from his home and trod the gray world as an outcast ever seeking an entrance to the land of the dead.  Finally at the dim edge of the earth he found the entrance to the underworld—the realm where the spirit of his beloved wife was imprisoned.  Summoning all of his passion and all of his talent, he began to sing and play his lyre as he walked into the kingdom of Hades.

Orpheus (Giovanni Bellini, 1515, oil on canvas)

Orpheus (Giovanni Bellini, 1515, oil on canvas)

The breath of life and hope was in the music of Orpheus and, for a shining moment, the denizens of the underworld forgot their pain and sorrow.  Cerberus lay down on his back and frolicked.  Each flickering spirit recalled the warmth and love of living. Tantalus was not tortured by his eternal thirst and the Erinyes, stunned by unknown emotions, set aside their scourges and spiked whips.  The damned knew a moment of blessed respite in their endless torment as Orpheus passed.  Persephone’s haunted garden of poplars and willows burst into bloom as though spring had at last come, and the queen of hell herself wept silent tears.

Orpheus in the Underworld (Ambrosius Francken the Elder, ca. 1600?, oil on canvas)

Orpheus in the Underworld (Ambrosius Francken the Elder, ca. 1600?, oil on canvas)

Even Hades, god of death and the world beyond, was moved by the music of Orpheus. After listening to the remainder of the song and hearing the musician’s desperate entreaties, the dark god agreed to let Eurydice return from death to the land of the living, but with one condition:  Orpheus must not look backward until after he left the underworld.  Eurydice would follow him silently. Only in the sunlight of life could they properly be reunited.

Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld (Jean -Baptise-Camille Corot, 1861, oil on canvas)

Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld (Jean -Baptise-Camille Corot, 1861, oil on canvas)

Tormented by doubt, Orpheus made his laborious way back upwards.  Without his music, the underworld again became dreadful and strange.  In the Stygian gloom, fear gnawed at him.  He worried that the lord of the dead had tricked him and nobody walked behind him. Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime of fear and darkness he spied the sunlight, and then, suddenly he could bear the overwhelming doubt no longer.  As though unconsciously, he turned to see if Eurydice was behind him.  For a moment he saw her ghostly beautiful face, and then she was gone, her spirit dragged back to the underworld.  All that was left was her final whisper, “I love you.”

Orpheus and Eurydice (Antonio Canova, 1776, marble)

Orpheus and Eurydice (Antonio Canova, 1776, marble)

The world held no joy for Orpheus.  Inconsolable he sat down beside a river in the wilderness with nothing left but his music, and that had turned impossibly sad. All he could do was play dirges of surpassing melancholy.  Beasts, men, plants, insects, even stones were overcome by tears.

Orpheus and the Bacchantes (Gregorio Lazzarini, circa 1710, oil on canvas)

Orpheus and the Bacchantes (Gregorio Lazzarini, circa 1710, oil on canvas)

The heavens themselves wept at the laments he sang.  Then a tribe of wild maenads came down from the hills.  The inebriated women were frenzied by wine and orgies.  They beat tumbrels and screamed in drunken ecstasy. Their shrieks of delight and delirium drowned out the dolorous music of Orpheus.  His sadness had no place in their revels, and he likewise wanted no part of their besotted celebration. Offended by his demurral, the Bacchantes ripped him to bloody pieces and cast his head into the river.  Still singing a lament, the severed head drifted out to the sea.

Death of Orpheus (Henri Levy, 1870, oil on canvas)

Death of Orpheus (Henri Levy, 1870, oil on canvas)

So goes the story of Orpheus, which everyone knows.  He is one of a long list of heroes, mystics, and even gods who braved the underworld in order to attain a boon or complete a quest.  Stories of the descent to the realm of death date back to the very beginning of writing (and presumably to fathomless prehistory before that).  The tale of Innana’s descent to the realm of death is one of the first known written things of any sort.  Gilgamesh, Osiris, Dionysus, Psyche, Hercules, Pirithous, Odin, Baldr, Lemminkäinen, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, Obatala, Arthur, Emperor Taizong of Tang, even Jesus Christ…all had to descend to death and go down questing into darkness.  Only some came back again with the secrets of destiny and eternity.

It is the oldest story because it speaks most directly to us. We are all mortal.  Alas, there are no magic herbs, secret songs, or forbidden elixirs (or cryogenic procedures) which can halt our inevitable death. Oblivion awaits all humans.  Only imaginary folks like deities or made-up heroes can die and come back.  Only art can surmount death.

La Mort d'Orphee (Louis Bouquet, ca. 1925-1939, oil on canvas)

La Mort d’Orphee (Louis Bouquet, ca. 1925-1939, oil on canvas)

I have told the story of Orpheus because Orpheus is the avatar of art.  His music stands in for all human imagination and creativity.  His katabasis story is sadder and deeper than the tale of simpler heroes like Hercules (who used divine strength to go down and come back) or Tammuz who was killed but came back to life because he was really a god. The myth of Orpheus is an allegory of the creative arts: it is the mythmaker’s myth about mythology.  Even in the story, Orpheus was a mortal and his quest was a glorious failure.  He had power over all beings only because of the verisimilitude of his music. He made it to hell and back with the emotional strength of his craft but ultimately failed to regain his love.

This is the story of art—a failure, a singing ghost which has no power to truly change anything. Art only makes us feel–it does not give us things. Look at Chardin’s peaches and bread rolls as long as you like. You will never taste them.  The glowing nude goddess wrought in tempera will never embrace you. And yet, and yet, art provides us a reason to go on…an emotional catharsis which contextualizes the multi-generational struggles which make up the true tale of humankind.

Orpheus with a Harp Playing to Pluto and Persephone in the Underworld (Jan Brueghel, 1594, oil on canvas)

Orpheus with a Harp Playing to Pluto and Persephone in the Underworld (Jan Brueghel, 1594, oil on canvas)

There is no underworld.  It is all made up.  There are no deities there (or probably anywhere).  Look around you at the room where you sit reading a computer screen—you are as close to the numinous as you are likely to get.  But these ancient symbols of death and transcendence still hold profound meaning for us.  We have the ability to imagine things–tales of what never was and never can be.  Over the long generations as our skills at science and engineering grow, it is still our creativity which endows life with meaning.   The imagination lends its transfigurative magic to the more concrete disciplines and drives us all forward, even though individually we might perish in the wilderness (torn apart, like Orpheus, by our own demons and tragedies).

Though all paths through the world lead to one place, do not despair. The singing lyre of Orpheus leads us again back to the light…to the pains and the hopes of life.

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