The Absurdity of Life

I have been ruminating lately on the absurdity of life. One of my favorite stories, which best epitomizes the absurdity of life (to me at least) is a fairy tale first published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812. Doctor Know-It-All tells the story of how a struggling woodcutter becomes a well-respected doctor. He sells his wood cart and oxen, uses the proceeds to buy new clothes, medical supplies, and an ABC book with a picture of a rooster inside and then goes on to solve the mystery of a theft from a rich and powerful man. His reputation made, he lives the rest of his life in luxury.

I’m not sure what to think of this story. Is the story of Dr. Know-It-All is really a folk tale version of “Fake It Until You Make It?” Does it have a spiritual message? Or does the woodcutter (named Crabbe in some versions of the tale, Fish in others) succeed because he’s lucky or smart? Or both?

And I couldn’t be the only one who finds it preposterous that Doctor Know It All owed his success, at least partially, to his frustration when he couldn’t find the rooster’s picture in the ABC book as quickly as he wanted? I don’t have the answer; I just enjoy the story.

I first read the story years ago in a wonderful book called Tales From Grimm, reinterpreted and illustrated by Wanda Gág, and first published in 1936. It remains my favorite version of this tale. I am not sure how I came to own my tattered copy of Tales From Grimm. I think I borrowed it from my grade school library and never bothered to return it. No matter. They tore the school down years ago.

At any rate, Wanda Gág was a groundbreaking illustrator and author of children’s literature, as well as a printmaker and entrepreneur. You can read about her career and see examples of her work here. Gág’s career is also covered in part 25 of the YouTube Unsung Heroes of Illustration series of videos by Pete Beard that I mentioned in a prior blog post. You can go directly to that video here. You can purchase a copy of Tales From Grimm here, or borrow it from the Internet Archive Open Library, here. And if you are ever in Gág’s birthplace of New Ulm Minnesota, you can visit a museum dedicated to her life and work here.

Matisse in the 1930’s

I went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art recently to see the Matisse in the 1930’s exhibit. I’ve always loved Matisse’s color and seemingly playful and uncomplicated work, but that’s not what compelled me to see the exhibit. The most important reason was the opportunity to go with a friend who had spent a year studying Matisse in depth and is a repository of knowledge about his work. The other reason is that, according to the PMA website, “By 1930, Henri Matisse had achieved significant international renown, yet he found himself in a deep creative slump.” Matisse in the 1930’s explores the ways he worked through this block and how his art changed in the process. Although I am light years behind Matisse artistically, I have been going through a creative slump of my own and was interested in learning how Matisse broke out of his.

I learned some new things about Matisse from my friend. For one thing, the French couldn’t stand his painting, at least in the beginning. So most of his best known work hangs on museum walls outside of France. His main collectors were Russian industrialists and American collectors. That’s why, if you want to get a good look at Matisse’s work, you will have to go to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia , the Baltimore Museum of Art where the collection amassed by the Cone sisters resides, or Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation which houses the biggest collection of his work, snapped up at bargain prices by Albert Barnes who started purchasing it in 1912. I’ve been lucky enough to have visited all three museums.

Most of the works at the PMA] are on loan from Baltimore or from smaller museums and private collections. None of the work in the PMA exhibit came from the Barnes (which probably has the best collection of Matisse in the world) or the Hermitage. But ironically, it was Matisse’s connection with Albert Barnes and a 1930 trip to visit him in a Philadelphia suburb that played a big role in the transformation of his work. You can read about that here.

Some things I learned at the exhibit: Matisse painted interiors, mostly still lifes and portraits. If he painted something outside, it was usually the view through a window.

He painted the same objects and people repeatedly. He just moved them around and found new ways to portray them. Drawing was central to his work and he was a master of line.

He sometimes recreated his own work in his paintings and drawings. You can see these in his depictions of the walls of his studio.

He painted many portraits of women, a great number of which were nudes.

In the early 1930’s, the color black didn’t play a big role in his work.

but the amount increased as the decade wore on on.

He embellished his motifs by incising the surface of his works with paint dipped into the handle of his paint brushes.

He was drawn to Islamic Art motifs and designs, and travelled widely in Morocco and Algeria which were French colonies in North Africa. You can see this influence in many of his backgrounds and elaborate rugs.

While looking into this aspect of Matisse’s work, I found an article called The Algerian Teenager who influenced Picasso and Matisse. (The heavy borrowing that went on here brought Emma AmosMuse Picasso to mind.)

Going back to 1930, Albert Barnes commissioned a mural from Matisse during Matisse’s trip to Philadelphia. The result was The Dance II. But Barnes was unhappy with the final product and said he had no plans to exhibit it to the public. A tragedy?

No tragedy at all! Consider that many art historians believe that The Dance II was a turning point for Matisse, inspiring him to return to his early emphasis on color and to explore the use of paper cut-outs that would play major role in his later works of art when he began to lose his eyesight and could no longer paint. The uncanny use of line and color remained.

So it looks like Matisse worked his way out of his creative slump by laboring on a commission for crusty Albert Barnes, only to have it rejected. Which is another way of saying that you never know where your inspiration will come from. Stay open. In closing, I recommend an interesting article on the exhibit that Quinn Russell Brown wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Fleisher Art Memorial 124th Annual Student Exhibition

Philadelphia’s Fleisher Art Memorial is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year!  And it’s also mounting its 124th Annual Student Exhibition.   And what a difference 125 years makes!  Fleisher now offers classes in digital photography, animation, video art, and digital illustration  in addition to the traditional fine arts mediums that  were its forte back in 1898.  The works in the show are a mix of the old mediums and the new.    

Click on the dot next to the above pictures so see the slide show.

There is too much work for me to show it all here. If you are in Philadelphia, stop by and take a look. Many of the high-quality artworks are for sale. The show is free, open to the public, and runs until January 27. Fleisher is located at 719 Catharine St, Philadelphia, PA 19147.

What a Faberge Egg Can Teach Us About the Value of Polymer Art

What characteristics might a Faberge Egg share with a work of finely-crafted polymer by an artist of the caliber of Ford and Forlano, Jeff Dever, Kathleen Dustin, or Dan Cormier? Much more than you think as it turns out.

We consider some things to be intrinsically valuable. Many people think that gold, for instance, is intrinsically valuable because it has been prized since ancient times. Others argue that gold’s value is a social convention, and that there’s nothing about the nature of the material that makes it any more or less desirable than, say, silver or granite. I’m not going to argue the point here.

But I do have another point to make. A few years ago, an unidentified man bought a golden ornament at a jumble sale. He knew the item was genuine gold, and he was hoping to sell it for scrap and make a $500.00 profit. And, had the ornament been sold for scrap, the man would have gotten a respectable return on his original investment, and would have walked away with a few hundred dollars. Because that’s what the materials in the tiny gold ornament were worth.

Only the ornament was a genuine Faberge egg, which the man discovered when he typed the word “egg,” and the letters inscribed on the tiny clock housed inside the egg, into Google on his computer. Of course, he had to have an expert evaluate the egg, but in the end it was, in fact, a genuine Faberge egg that had been missing for years. It was worth millions. Or, at least, that is what the appraisers predicted someone was likely to pay for it. You can read the whole story here.

Antiques expert Kieran McCarthy, who evaluated the egg, had this to say:

“[The man] didn’t look upon [the egg as] a work of art at all. He saw that it was pretty and it was nice, but he was buying on intrinsic value. … The essence of Faberge’s work is craftsmanship. It’s the beauty of design and the conceiving of that object. . .This is what that object is about, this craftsmanship and demonstration of skill. If you’re not looking for it, you won’t see it.

The man knew nothing about antiques or fine craftsmanship. He estimated the value of the egg’s materials correctly, but vastly “underestimated its value as a work of art.”

Which brings me back to polymer. Yes, polymer is only plastic. It is what the artist (like those mentioned above and many others) brings to it that gives it value. So the next time someone devalues polymer work because it’s “just polymer,” don’t whine about it. Tell them the story of the Faberge egg. And then tell it to yourself, and work on your craftsmanship.

Polymer at PMA Craft Show 2022

I got my first real look at polymer back in the stone age at the Philadelphia Craft Show at the 23rd Street Armory in Philadelphia. That’s where I first saw the the work of City Zen Cane. I bought two pairs of earrings at their booth: a pair for me which I still have, and a pair for my mother-in-law. She later confessed that she lost one earring and was so upset, she threw away the other one. That’s alright. I got her son.

I joined my friend Patty for the 46th annual Philadelphia Museum of Art Contemporary Craft Show at the Philadelphia Convention Center recently. The show was less crowded than I remember it, probably because of the pandemic, and it was easy to take pictures of work with your cell phone. But there’s a danger in doing that. If you want to remember something, you’re much better off going to the artists’ websites, and everyone has one nowadays. They pay a lot of money to have their work professionally photographed in the best possible light. Still, I could not resist taking some pictures of the venue itself

City Zen Cane, now known as Ford and Forlano, were at the craft show this year with their distinctive work that has evolved greatly from their early days.

But this year’s show will be their last one. Now, we’ve all heard things like this before. How many farewell tours has Cher and The Who had? Don’t even mention Tom Brady. Still, there’s a lot more money to be made from stadium rock concerts and professional football than polymer clay, no matter how innovative and visionary it is. I am sure their work will still be available on their web site.

I had never met Wiwat Kamolpornwijit, but he proved to be a friendly and affable guy who loved to talk about his work. He looked like he was having a good show. Go to his website to take a look at his jewelry.

I have admired Genevieve Williamson‘s work for years. I love her muted and understated palate and her commitment to recycling clay and materials. Great earring cards!

Follow Genevieve on Instagram here.

Last but not least is Bonnie Bishoff, who was showing work with her husband and collaborator J.M. Syron. Bonnie will be this year’s guest artist at Clayathon.

Check out their website here and Instagram feed here. Drop me a message in the comments section if you want to learn more about Clayathon.

Joyous Disruption This Saturday

We all need a little disruption now and then, otherwise it’s easy to get into a rut. I had a successful day at Handmade X El Mercado Cultural last week (and did some shopping there too. It’s always great to support your fellow artists), and thought I was through for the season. I don’t do a lot of shows.
But then, I was invited to participate in a community event called Joyous Disruption, sponsored by the DaVinci Art Alliance. They’ll have food, music, performances and dancing as well as artisis showing their crafts. How can you go wrong?

I’ll have little porcelain bowls, and some polymer and ceramic jewelry.

The event is free. If you live nearby, I hope to see you there!

Handmade x El Mercado Cultural

I will be joining the Open Studio Potters selling my handmade pottery and ceramic jewelry at Fleisher Art Memorial’s annual holiday handmade gift show on December 3.

Earrings galore made from ceramic porcelain clay

A selection of porcelain clay pendants paired with different metals and upcycled jewelry parts

Tiny ring bowls and vessels suitable for storing your baubles

Lots of one of kind earthenware mugs decorated with my handmade silk screens and stencils. There’s something for everyone. For more information on this year’s show and a complete list of artists, press here.

School Pictures at the Wilma Theater

I am interrupting my regularly-planned blog posts to post a review of a play I saw this week at the Wilma Theater called School Pictures. It’s unlike anything I have ever seen: a one person performance by playwright Milo Cramer, who portrays a number of middle-school students they worked with as a private tutor in the City of New York before the pandemic. To take on all these parts in one play is quite an undertaking, but there’s more. Cramer sings all the parts in a high-pitched voice while accompanying themself on various musical instruments: a ukulele, a toy piano, a regular piano, and a portable organ. Sometimes they sit on the floor. Sometimes they sit on a chair. The set is sparse, an almost bare stage with minimal props.

Sound weird or tedious? It’s not. Cramer’s performance is engaging, well-paced, and entertaining. Nothing drags. You get drawn in to the personal stories of the students which are a combination of comedic, poignant, sad and illuminating.

Towards the end the play, Cramer wheels a tall blackboard onto the stage and resumes the role of teacher, instructing the audience about the institutional inequalities that plague the New York school system. There’s no preaching. Cramer’s arguments are all the more compelling because they engage in a dialogue with the audience, and lets everyone draw their own conclusions.

School Pictures will be at the Wilma Theater until November 20.