The Story of Nomge


One theme I try to address in this blog is how  the history of world events (think of the history taught in schools) and personal and family history affect the creative process. The story of Nomge’s creation is an example of world events and personal  history converging into art.  In Nomge’s case, however, the world history is  African-American history which is still not uniformly taught in schools as the integral part of American history  that it truly  is.

Nomge is the work of Philadelphia artist, teacher and activist Maisha Sullivan-Ongaza, who first traveled to the African continent to visit  Nigeria and Kenya more than thirty years ago.  That trip was the first of  a regular series of travels to countries throughout Africa that  she continues to this day.  Along the way,  she developed a vast expertise in African culture and history that she used as host of a local radio program,  “Fertile Ground.”  But sometimes the most important journeys we make are the inner ones.   I think that’s what led Maisha to create Nomge.

Most artists have  the itch create.  Sometimes this urge kicks into overdrive:  ideas that might have laid dormant within the artist for years start to resonate and insights seem to come from nowhere.  Materials such as fabric, metal or beads might start  “talking” and telling the artist how to use them.  The experience  often makes the artist feel like an  external force has taken control of  her and that she is more instrument than artist.  The process can seem almost religious, but I think  it is  a result of ideas, memories  and emotions lurking in the subconscious and spewing forth almost uncontrollably at the point when the artist is ready to give them a voice or form.  I don’t think my rationale makes this process any less miraculous.

Four years ago,  Maisha  decided to have her DNA tested  to learn  about her African forebears.  She found out that her that her maternal ancestors were Bamileke people who came from Cameroon, a little country tucked next to Nigeria on the West coast of Africa.   Knowing the country your  ancestors came from is something many people take for granted.   But for those  who have lived all their lives with a with a hole in their family histories,  the discovery can generate powerful emotions and, for those who have the courage, an invitation to embark on a path of self discovery.   Art can help the process because it is a constructive,  therapeutic way to express feelings.  And all over the world, it is a traditional method of paying homage to an ancestral legacy.

From what Maisha told me, I can’t help but believe that at least some of  these elements came together and compelled her to  create the Cameroon-inspired Nomge who is named after one of the more than 250 ethnic groups who live there.

 Maisha started with a “T” shaped wood armature and anchored it in an old Gullah  basket she lined and filled with plaster.   She sculpted Nomge’s head and arms with  Ultralite Sculpey colored with pigment.  Nomge’s hair is a combination of cocoanut shells, heishi, bauxite shells, and strands of Maisha’s own hair. Maisha  obtained the vertebrae beads on her first trip to Nigeria.  She does not remember what animal they are from-possibly a snake. She stained them with walnut ink.  Nomge’s necklace is made from African trade beads.

Maisha made Nomge’s body soft so she could bead on it, and she used beads from her travels  collected over the years. The bronze pieces are from Nigeria. The coin on the front with the hole in the center  (see top picture) is from 1957 when Nigeria was still a British colony. 

    

The leather shoulder  pouches are inspired by Gri Gri from West African culture.  Gri Gris are talismans normally filled with prayers and protecting, healing herbs like Echinacea and golden seal. The Gri Gris on  Nomge’s shoulders contain the names of Maisha’s ancestors and children. There is an African saying, Maisha told me,  “Thanks are due to the shoulders who hold the head high.”  The Gri gris are meant to honor her ancestors without whom she and her children would not be here to contribute to the world.

The smaller Gri Gris on Nomge’s sides contain the names of the children Maisha works with in her program along with  lemon rind and honey, because life can be bitter  and it can be sweet.

The various bone pendants and amulets belonged to Maisha’s late husband.  The red leather ( stained to age it) comes from a jacket that Luther Vandross owned and wore on his “Power of Love” tour.    Maisha’s friend Dzinga was Luther’s first cousin and gave Maisha the jacket after he died. It has found new life in Nomge.

Maisha didn’t buy any new materials to make Nomge. “She wouldn’t let me,” Maisha laughed, ” Every single time I went and  tried to get new beads for her, she wouldn’t let me!  I would get lost or have car trouble or something else would happen. It was her way of saying ‘You don’t have to go all over to find me. Whatever you need in life is already here. Everything you need is right here. ‘”

Nomge’s final instruction to Maisha was that she would be finished in 2010, and she was.  Maisha put the last bead on her on New Years’ Eve, 2010.

I suspect that Maisha  carried Nomge inside for years until the series of events she related to me ended with Nomge’s  arrival in her house on New Years Eve, 2010.  It must have been a joyful event when Maisha welcomed Nomge home.




Susan’s Blue Candy Dish

I broke Susan’s cobalt blue candy dish. An old cobalt blue candy dish.   It was probably an heirloom.  Susan took one look and said “Phooey.”   Then she smiled.  “Make me something from the pieces.”   So I took the pieces home and stared at them.  I got an idea.  I put them in my rock tumbler and tumbled them into velvety looking beach glass.  I didn’t know what to do next. I showed them to Susan and asked what she thought.  “I liked it better shiny,” she commented.  Phooey, I thought.  I put the glass away.  That was twenty-five years ago.

One day I took the glass  out and stared at it because the time had come to make something for Susan out of the glass. The glass was talking to me. Not only that, I had taken up lampworking in the  twenty-five years that had passed, and  I  will stick mostly anything in the flame.  Well,  that’s not exactly true.   I don’t cook in the flame or light combustibles or body parts.    I respect the flame.  But I love to play and experiment.

I made lots of beads for Susan using all kinds of inclusions where the COE of the glass didn’t matter.  I had didn’t have a plan or directions; I just  heeded the laws of chemistry and improvised  as I went.  After kiln annealing, I put the beads in a box along with  with some findings and jewelry tools and other beads and gave them to Susan.  She took one look and clapped her hands.  “Oh, goody gumdrops!” she exclaimed.

One day when I can tie her down,  we will make things with the beads.  Here’s to the next 25 years, Susan!

 

Here are  the beads I kept.

 

I will post next week on how I get these effects with scrap glass.  

My Palette, Color Scales and an Exercise

As I continue to work my way through Polymer Clay Color Inspirations, I am finding new color formulas and combinations that are more interesting than the color palettes I was most comfortable with when I started.

I am currently making color scales (with side diversions into mold making and resin jewelry-I’ll post on that later) and finding that color mixtures I thought would be attractive don’t interest me at all and formulas that I never dreamed would have worked are wowing me. It’s one surprise after the other. I am starting to see the bigger color picture.

After doing the collages, I mixed my personal palette based on combinations of fuchsia, cadmium yellow and ultramarine blue. The pictures below show the resulting color scales, the collage they’re based on, and the pinch petal necklace exercise. (You make a multi part Skinner Blend from your palette colors, wrap it around a black and white Skinner Blend, and make petal beads in gradating colors that you have to keep in order while baking and stringing them.)  I like my necklace, which I’ve strung  on memory wire,  but I think my personal palette is no longer my favorite palette. Am I palette fickle?   After I finish the color scales, I’ll reassess. And so the journey continues.

Make Mine Mosaic Too!

As promised, here are pictures of my finished counter that I posted about in July. I attached the pieces to the counter, grouted them with sanded grout and sealed the grout after it dried. This project was a lot more work than I thought it would be, but I like the results. I don’t use this counter for food preparation; it’s just a bright place between the dining room and the kitchen.

Bob’s Urban Garden at the End of Summer.

Real Steampunk

     The Steampunk  genre (or more correctly, sub-genre) encompasses moviesclothingartfiction,  jewelrysculpture and more.  It draws heavily from old fashioned technology and appeals to those of  us  interested in technology, fantasy, and exploring mixing materials from different times and places. 

     I never really thought about why Steampunk is called Steampunk (as opposed to Technopunk for example) until I visited the Treadgar Iron Works in Richmond Virginia.  Tredgar churned out ammunition for the Confederacy during the Civil War, but also manufactured steam locomotives and other new inventions of the Industrial Revolution.   The  perfection of the steam engine changed everything and took large parts of the Western World from an Agrarian to an Industrial Economy.  Hey-sometimes it takes me a long time to see the obvious, and then I see it everywhere.

     Here are some pictures I took of the old machinery at Tredgar.

 

     The first museum exhibition of Steampunk design will take place at the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford University later this year.   This is appropriate in so many ways.  Be sure to check out the blog devoted to the exhibit.

The Soul of a Tree

Nak037Last week, we made the trek to the Nakashima Studio in New Hope, Pennsylvania. My in-laws made this trek in 1959 with Shari and my husband in tow.  They put a deposit on  a slab coffee table and hanging wall cabinet, and were nervous about spending so much money.  Who in his right mind would spend $300.00 on furniture with knot holes in it and cracks fixed with inlaid butterfly shaped pieces of wood that didn’t even match?

The furniture was delivered to their suburban home a few months later and they enjoyed it for the next 48 years. That furniture saw a lot of parties and family celebrations.  When Milton died, the guest book for the memorial ceremony sat on the cabinet for guests to sign.

When Vicky died, the furniture passed to Shari who enjoyed it every day of the short time she had left.  Shari longed to make one last trip to the Nakashima Studio but was too sick.  At her memorial ceremony we set a beautiful wooden box holding her ashes on the coffee table along with her glasses.

Last week, as I was walking on the gravel paths that lead from one studio building to the next, I realized that trees tell a Nak020story.  You can read history in trees if you know how.    Nakashima understood the soul of trees; he did not alter or mask a tree’s spirit with detailed carving, paint or heavy hardware.  Instead, he engaged in a dialog with it, and listened-really listened-to each whorl, knot and wormhole.  George Nakashima’s work is a reminder that imperfection has its own beauty.   If we could take those principles and apply them to each other, we would understand  that our imperfections are what make us remarkable.  And beautiful.


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We gave the furniture to family members who we hope will enjoy it for the next 48 years.

Sanding Polymer Clay Beads in a Rock Tumbler

I’ve seen so many questions about this technique on the Internet that  I had to share what I’ve learned from my experiments.

I prefer vibratory tumblers  to rolling tumblers because they’re quieter and work more quickly.   Plus, they are less likely to distort the shape of the beads. When my beloved Vibratech tumbler (no longer made) gave out earlier this year, I researched vibratory tumblers and  liked what I read about the Raytech brand. You can read more about Raytech tumblers here.

As you probably know, vibratory tumblers can be expensive, but Raytech makes a hobby-sized model that won’t break the bank.   I chose the Raytech TV-5 Complete Vibratory Tumbler Kit from 1 erocktumbling.com because they had the best price and it comes with a spare bowl and bolt.  

3 I tumble my baked beads with Bon Ami cleanser and water.  I got the idea from a post on  Glass Attic.  I don’t just finish my beads this way; this is the only sanding they get. Of course, if you have a real bumpy bead, you probably need to whip out the sandpaper, but I’ve found that the Bon Ami tumbling method works on hand-formed beads, extruded beads, beads made with bead rollers and it puts a nice finish on most shapes, including disc and lentil, and carved faux beads.  I always drill after I tumble.

4aI wait until I have a bowlful of beads and I put them 4bin the container (which looks like a bunt pan) with about half a can of the cleanser. I pour in enough water to make a slip-like substance that coats the beads. What smooths the beads is the abrasive action of the Bon Ami and the beads vibrating (rolling actually) into one another. If you have too much water, there’s not enough abrasive action.  Too little water, and the beads become embedded in cleanser muck and won’t move.  

The Raytech TV-5 is low tech.  You turn it on and off by plugging and unplugging it.  I sit mine on a cement floor in the basement. It has a clear plastic top that screws on with a rubber and metal bolt.  It’s important to screw the bolt on tightly for two reasons: First, the tighter it is, the quieter the tumbler runs. Secondly, the water will evaporate more slowly allowing you to leave the tumbler on for 12-24 hours at a stretch.

I check my beads every 12 hours or so,  unplugging the tumbler first, taking out a bead, rinsing all the cleanser off, feeling the surface and noting the shape. If I decide to continue tumbling, I might add water if the bowl contents are too dry or a bit more cleanser if the bowl contents are too wet.

Whether the beads get another tumble depends on how smooth they are. There is no exact recipe; each batch is different and things like bead shape and humidity (which affects how fast the water will evaporate) influence the process.  You have to experiment and see what works for you.

When the beads are as smooth as I like, I dump the contents of the bowl 5into a dishpan filled with water and dislodge as much of the cleanser as I can. Then I put the beads in a big mesh strainer and rinse off more cleanser.  I put them back in the bowl (which I have cleaned) and tumble them for a day in water and a few drops of dishwashing liquid. The cleanser will get into small cracks (usually in faux beads) and this process removes most of it. Sometimes I finish cleaning any cracks with a toothbrush, but I’m not obsessive about it. This is supposed to be a work saving technique after all.    bead

It is very important to dry the beads and get as much of the white haze off of them as you reasonably can before buffing.   I buff the beads with a high-speed buffer and a muslin wheel.   The result is the nice shiny finish.   beads

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The left picture shows an experiment: untumbled baked beads (front) and other shapes made from the same clay  that were tumbled and polished on a high-speed buffer. The beads on the right were tumbled and buffed.

 Why use Bon Ami instead of tumbling grit?  You can pour your waste water down the drain for one thing.  And the grit is made for stones.  The Bon Ami might take longer, but you won’t have to check as often and you are less likely to ruin your beads.  If you have any doubts about the capability of Bon Ami cleanser and water to remove baked clay from beads, look at the picture below.  The two beads were identical and the one on the right spent a few days in the tumbler.

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Fantasy Runs in My Family

My cousin Ken Bloomhorst sent me some pictures of his newer work recently, and I love it! My last post about him talked about his art as a product of the Midwest. His new work comes from a vivid imagination probably stoked by embellishing stories for grandchildren. Or maybe we have a fantasy gene in our DNA.

Ken is at an age where no one can tell him, “Don’t you know elephants don’t wear glasses and rattlesnakes don’t have pink and orange stripes?” We all need to get to that place, no matter what the calendar says.

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Ken also did the illustrations for a soon to be published children’s book Dragon Tales The Three Sisters. You can see more of Ken’s work at The Bridge Kids site.

Make Your Own Clasps!

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It took a long time for this necklace to come together.  My friend Jeanne gave me the amber after her husband died.  I got the coral, turquoise and Balinese beads at an outside art show in Portland, Oregon.  I bought the red disc beads-actually made in Africa from old phonograph records-at a bead show.

The beads spoke to me one day and I put together the necklace below. I couldn’t find the right clasp to save my life, so, with some basic wire skills I learned in a glass from my Beading Yoda Jeri Schatz, I made a clasp.  And then I made more clasps.  And then I wrote an article on how to make clasps which is in the latest edition of Step By Step Wire Jewelry.     n

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