Arts in Education: Reading Baldwin

I found a chair!

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As a part of the Arts in Education program that I’m entering, we have a series of readings.  I’m not sure I will journal everything this year, but one thing that I miss lately is the reflective practice that I have often had, so it is a goal to share at least some of my reflections with you, my readers.

I am struck in reading the article, “The Creative Process” by James Baldwin as found here on Black de Cool Sun’s Blog, by how nearly Baldwin’s reflection on his practice and sense of self mirrors the last few months of my life (if not longer). I have recently been reflection on how the image of who I thought I wished to be is so divergent from who I have become.

That is: I have always held myself the goal of a life with a sweet domesticity, with a beautiful stable house with a garden and a family, but the life that I’ve lived is far more wild.

Everyone but me has perceived this other wild Allida. When I talk about this dichotomy that has been particularly sharp lately, they say, “What do you mean? You have gone on adventures; you’ve always longed for broader horizons.” And I have gone on adventures: Chicago, Madrid, Florida, Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, home to Michigan, and now Cambridge.

As Baldwin says, “…”[anyone] knows that the one face that one can never see is one’s own face. One’s lover– or one’s brother, or one’s enemy– sees the face you wear…” the implication being that the same is true of our own foibles and choices. As he goes on to say, “We do the things we do and feel what we feel essentially because we must– we are responsible for our actions, but we rarely understand them.”

Along those lines, much of the path that drew me here has felt surreal. My choices have led me here, to this moment of pushing my boundaries, but my comprehension of how I “dare disturb the universe” is meagre. Pushing myself and my creation out of the proverbial nest. To fly or fall, though “In a minute there is time/ For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.”*

The other pervasive feeling, perhaps the one that led me to risk this adventure in the first place, is that I feel very precarious. In this I am not alone, many people in my X-ennial generation and the ones that follow me are members of the Precariat, a term meant to describe the precarious nature of work as it is becoming in the 21st Century.

Here too, Baldwin has something to say, perhaps because the life of an artist and writer has always been a bit precarious,

There are so many things one would rather not know. We become social creatures because we cannot live any other way. But in order to become social, there are a great many other things that we must not become and we are frightened, all of us, of these forces within that perpetually menace our precarious security. Yet the forces are there: we cannot will them away. All we can do is learn to live with them. And we cannot learn this unless we are willing to the ll the truth about ourselves, and the truth about us is always at variance with what we wish to be. The human effort is to bring these two realities into a relationship resembling reconciliation.

It is a feeling both of joy and of loss as the seasons change and I migrate to new horizons. And I am actively in that moment of reconciliation between who and what I am and who and what I perceive myself to be.  The prospect of what I will learn and how I will grow and the new friends I will make are joyful. The loss of the work I have loved, has incited an introspective attempt at reconciling my outer artist-adventurer with my inner domesticity. I will miss you Ypsilanti, I will love you Cambridge!

*a second reference to the same T.S. Eliot poem,

Contrapposto Cantilevers

Much like we like to take pictures and make sculptures of each other, the Egyptians tried to portray the human figure in sculpture and paint.  See this example below, which is in the Metropolitan Museum of New York, AKA the Met.  She is tall and slim, with great posture and huge eyes.

Estate Figure, Wood and Gesso. 1981- 1975 BCE At the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

QUESTION: What words would you use to tell me about this picture?
FOLLOW-UPS TO GET THE IDEA OUT: How does the picture feel?  What do you notice about the figure?
WORDS WE EXPECT: Stiff, uptight, bored, regal, upset, tense, a little weird

The Ancient Egyptians were trying to figure out a bunch of stuff all at once: how to carve stone, and other technical ideas; how to observe the world around them; and how to make the images they created fit into a symbolic belief system. The textures on the dress are very stylized as is her pose.

The Ancient Egyptians made art because they had a very complex religious system and these images served a variety of purposes in that system.  That is why the figure is stylized.  But there is more going on here.  This figure is made of wood and is around 4,000 years old.  It survived because it was buried with it’s master and preserved in a hot dry environment underground.  A pyramid or other burial location.  She represents a member of the estate of the person who was buried.

This next figure was Greek and it is (only) 2200 years old.  Let’s look at some similarities and differences between the two.  We will look at the stylistic as well as the

Victoire de Samothrace - vue de trois-quart gauche, gros plan de la statue (2)
Nike of Samothrace, Greek 200-190 BCE, Louvre Museum, Paris France
Ok, let’s talk about this one.  It is  The Nike of Samothrace.  She is on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

QUESTION: What words would you use to describe it, just like we did for the first image?
(SAME Follow-up if needed)
WORDS WE EXPECT: cool, relaxed, natural… etc.

OK, so let’s look at how these images are the same and different.
(SAME: subject is a woman, shifting her weight from one foot to the other)
(DIFFERENT: Aesthetic stuff, Time period if they know, color painted, incidentally the Greek statues were probably painted but being kept above ground instead of in hermetically sealed pyramids, the paint has long since peeled. Some have traces though.  The Egyptian Statue is wood, the Greek is stone)

DRAW IN THE HIP and SHOULDER lines… THEN THE S CURVE for the body.

The Egyptian figure has almost perfectly horizontal hips and shoulders even though her foot is forward, so the lines on the hip and shoulder end up making a sideways “H.”  The Greek Figure the shoulders and hips are very slanted.  When you connect the dots and trace the legs, you end up with what we call an S curve.

It’s more a more natural pose because when we put a foot forward, we actually shift our weight from one foot to the other.  But it is harder to balance an asymmetrical figure when you are carving a stationary object because once you take away or reduce stone or wood from a block, you cannot put it back, so if you take away too much from someplace the whole thing falls over and you could lose hours and hours of work.

The fluidity of the style and the reason the Classical statue looks more “cool” is because of the way the artists figured out how to balance that shifting of weight that we do naturally with our moving bodies.  The S curve creates movement because some of the body is relaxed and some of it is tensed to support the weight.

Stand up
Shift your weight from right foot to left.
Try to pose like the Ancient Egyptian figure
Try to pose like the Nike of Samothrace
Then move your left foot and feel which parts of your body shift.
How far can you lean over and what parts of your body move to keep your balance when you do that?
Which muscles are relaxed while you balance and which ones are tense (the ones you are using)?
Finally, stand against the wall and lean forward as far as you can. How far can you go without moving your arms away from your sides?
Can you imagine doing this out of stone?

One thing to remember, if any of you are dancers, this will make sense: For your center of gravity to hold you up, your weight bearing ankle is almost always directly under your neck. Also generally speaking, the part of your body that is bearing the load of your motion is the part that is stiff.

So the Ancient Egyptians and Classical Greeks came up with a couple different solutions. In part because of the different purposes for these statues. First, aesthetically, both design solutions were related to the religious and spiritual needs of their society.  Second as you have seen by paying attention to your body, balance is

The Egyptians had a very compartmentalized religion in which the Pharaoh was the only go-between and protector of the people on their journey through life and death. So the Egyptians wanted a very stylized image, which is apparent in the way it’s painted and carved, and its very graphic nature. The Greeks, well, you only have to read a few ancient tales to know that the Ancient Greeks had a much more human relationship to their gods. So the Nike of Samothrace is very dynamic. The folds of cloth give extra movement to her body, she is very real and very lifelike. The Egyptian dress was also pleated, but the pleats are contained and very straight, looking almost like scales in this image.

The second reason that the two ancient cultures had different solutions was technical. The Ancient Egyptians had not quite figured out how to balance a statue the way people balance, and a few centuries later, working off the knowledge from Egypt and other neighboring cultures, the Greeks had progressed in their technical ability.

Much like you guys know how to do stuff to computers that didn’t even exist when I was your age. Without the people who built the computers who are my age and older, you would not be able to do those things, but we may not be able to figure out the way to do it as quickly as you!

Lastly, most of the sculptures we have shared with you are far far away, but we have some statues of dancers that are at the University of Michigan Museum of Art and at the DIA that you can go and look at. (I have not verified that they are on display, but the Degas (or a very similar one) is almost always out at the DIA, and the Rodin sculptures were there last time I was at UMMA).

Edgar Degas, Spanish Dancer, French, 1900 Bronze. DIA Collection (Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit MI)

These works are cast bronze, which is very different than stone, and has different material properties. To make casts in bronze, one usually first makes an image out of wax and other softer easier to mold materials, then follows a bunch of different steps to cast it into bronze.

Using what we have experienced with our senses is the artist’s way of figuring out how to make things balance. Knowing weights and textures and feeling the structural strength with our hands, but in the engineering design process there are other ways to measure that using Mathematics and Physics.

For more images pertaining to contrapposto, I’ve compiled a pinboard on Pinterest with additional images.  The images above are women, because this was written to support the Art of Engineering for Girls at FLY Children’s Art Center.  But the images on the pinboard are of both genders.

Mosaic Madness

The July First Fridays Ypsi event at FLY, where I work, was quite fun! Our project this month was a pop-cap mosaic mural that we will display at the Creativity Lab (40 N. Huron, Ypsilanti, 48197), and take with us to some special events. A good time was had by all our visiting artists, young, younger, and grown-up.

We had some families come in, and as the evening waned, a stream of couples and singles who stopped to chat. It is great to get to know people in our community. They let us know what’s going on, and we can share with them so we all become involved with one another. Go Ypsi!

Just about all the materials were from generous donors. Since bottle-caps are usually not recyclable, people saved them up and gave them to us. The canvases they’re on were also a generous gift from someone.

We are most impressed with the detail orientation and hard work by our supporters, particularly the young people who did the bulk of the work. Thanks to everyone who stopped by, and be sure not to miss the August 1st First Friday, which will include the Washington Street Ypsi Art Fair.

Creative Universe Summer Series

Today was the first day of our Saturday morning series. Christine did Triangles with Art Play (a class designed for pre-school) from 9:00am to 10:00, and then I came in to do M. C. Escher, patterns and tesselations.

We re-named Mad Science to Creative Universe since we look at the universality of Art to help us understand a variety of things. This time the theme for the series is Pattern, and in the fall we plan on doing Animals.

Anyway, today we did some sketches on paper with letters to talk about how things are reflected (like a mirror), rotated (or turned around), or translated (moved down a line) to create patterns. Then I explained how we could use what we talked about to create a pattern on graph paper. After it was clear everyone understood the general idea, we moved on to cutting out stamps from Scrap Box rubber pads.

We took our stamps and made patterns with them by translation, and rotation. To do reflection you need to cut a separate stamp that faces the opposite way. A p will rotate to become a d, but no matter how you turn it, it doesn’t become a b or a q which would be the reflection.

After some focused stamping and repeating, I opened it up and had them do some really fast stamping with geometric right before clean-up. One student took her line and rotated the stamp while applying pressure, creating a pattern of scumbled monotypes that look like LP records. Scumbling is dragging paint across a surface, usually with a large palette knife or ruler, and a monotype is a kind of print made from a block that is re-inked in an irregular way.