Humble Contributions to the Peoples' History

Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Did I find a Native American Artifact?

Just a rock? Or Native American Artifact?

IMG_7591While beachcombing on an island off the coast of Maine, I came across a rock, just one of thousands piled along the shoreline. What struck me about this rock was the straight planes and angles, as if a human had cut the rock rather than shaped by natural forces. The rock fit nicely in the palm of my hand. Black deposits appeared on three sides, the fourth side, none at all. Shaped like a wedge, etchings marked the narrow edge. New Englanders told me that some folks collect these rocks, as they are considered lucky because two straight white lines cross each.

When I returned home, I scanned the Internet looking for any evidence that the shape might reveal its history. I studied images of Native American tools, but I could not find anything like it. I checked with the folks at rockpiles.blogspot,com, where Peter suggested that the rock might be a hoe,

You can see the “edge” as a worked sequence on the upper edge, and you can see how the hoe was was attached to a handle – the dark staining is from organic material like leather that was used to tie the hoe to the handle.

Corn Festival and Artifact Appraisal

I still wanted to learn more about the rock and came across the Roasting Ears of Corn Festival, Eastern Pennsylvania’s oldest Native American Festival, held at the Museum of Indian Culture in Allentown. One of their many events included a chance for an appraisal of an Indian artifact.

As I pulled into the parking lot, I could hear the drums in the distance and joined folks streaming into the staging area. Children were taking turns at the tomahawk and spear throw, and dancers filled the central arena. Before looking for the appraisal tent, I headed first for the line for the roasted corn. Buffalo burgers and Indian taco were also on the menu. The blueberry frybread sounded good, so I ordered that, too, and found a seat at the picnic tables in front of the dancing circle. Later, I read about frybread in a Smithsonian article on the subject:

Navajo frybread originated 144 years ago, when the United States forced Indians living in Arizona to make the 300-mile journey known as the “Long Walk” and relocate to New Mexico, onto land that couldn’t easily support their traditional staples of vegetables and beans. To prevent the indigenous populations from starving, the government gave them canned goods as well as white flour, processed sugar and lard—the makings of frybread.

It seems that frybread has become a favorite at pow-wows and fairs, varying in the way it is prepared in each area of the country. Native American dancing, although energetic, is meditative with the rhythmic drumming accompanying the movements, and I fell under the spell in the soft summer air as I savored the blueberry frybread. Glad I didn’t know at the time could be as much as 700 calories!


American Indian Cooking Demonstration

I have some familiarity with Indian history, having taken a course in Native American autobiography. In a post, My Favorite Book: Condemned by both the Left and Right, I write about the controversies surrounding the novel, Education of Little Tree. Alexie Sherman signed another one of my favorite books, Reservation Blues.  

Valuable Find

I found the Museum of Indian Cultures head curator, Lee Hallman, sitting behind his many collections of arrowheads, displayed in glass cases. Lee examined the rock and stated that it was definitely a tool, possibly a scrapping implement, that it was Native American but not valuable. I had thought that if was important I would give it to a museum in Maine. Lee said it might be worth a dollar, at the most.  Well, regardless of the monetary value, looking at the rock, I think about the hands that crafted it.

Curator Museum

Lee Hallman & arrow display

Now that I had identified my rock, time to stroll along the many tents and exhibits. At one of the tents, a musician played a large wooden flute, and the melody was so enchanting, I purchased the CD, Meditation, with the melody, “Love Mountain.” Several vendors were selling CDS so visitors had many choices of Native American music, current and traditional.

Lord of the Strings, Arvel Bird

The featured performer, Arvel Bird, played a magical combination of Native American and Celtic music, and I couldn’t image how I had the fortune to hear live someone who brought two of my favorite music genres together. Arvel’s biography on his website provides this description:

“Braveheart Meets Last of the Mohicans . . . at Woodstock” is a colorful description of this award-winning Celtic Fusion recording artist and his live performances. Arvel Bird, a violinist and Native American flutist, is known around the world for his dramatic connection between Celtic and Native American traditions, stirring up scenes that echo from North American memory. Dubbed “Lord of the Strings” by fans and music critics, his music evokes the soul of North American history and is thoroughly entertaining, but also enlightening and humanizing. In a language and experience that captures the hearts of all audiences, he’s emotional without being condescending, intellectual without being pretentious.

Arvel Bird

Given my Scotch-Irish heritage, I felt an immediate connection to his music. A skillful musician, Arvel gifted us with a joyful performance that reflected his passion for the violin. Celtic and Native American ancestral spirits would be deeply moved by his presentation of stories and songs. I especially enjoyed his classical piece, Tribal Music Suite: Journey of a Paiute, a Celtic and Native American Concerto for Violin and Native American Flute, that earned Arvel Best Instrumental Album.

I don’t usually believe in lucky charms, but somehow the rock brought me to this inspiring performance.


Beyond Redemption?

A good novel so captures the imagination that I attempted to put that idea into a sculpture project.

Working with porcelain, I carved the clay into a book and then created a scene from Herman Melville’s literary masterpiece, Moby Dick. As the piece air-dried, I had to fix and fix again the clay cracking along the sides but finally stabilized the splitting. Unfortunately, when it came out of the kiln, the book had nearly broken in two with a quarter-inch gap across the front. A corner had fallen off, and sides had split and warped in several sections. Still, I set to work to see if I could make repairs. With glue, paint and glaze I began the patching process thinking that, in the end, this is not going to work.

Cracks on the Underside

Cracks on the Underside

Well, I’ll leave the question about redemption with you, in either case, the whale and Captain Ahab–or the sculpture.


Moby Dick4

Mea Culpa: Breaking the Rules at the Art Museum

Once I thought about what I had inadvertently done, I stewed for days trying to decide whether I should write this particular blog post, admitting my mistake. I’m somewhat of a perfectionist. Something internal drives the compulsion that I should never make a mistake, including following rules that benefit us all. I know, that’s sounds a bit obsessive, but telling of the level of my concern.

Back Story

One of my favorite artistic devices is the tromp-l’oeil, which is a French word meaning fooling of the eye. My introduction to this device came when I was a child and visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art and gazed upon The Staircase Group by Charles Wilson Peale. As kids we always referred to it as the “painting with the step” and immediately knew the reference. Wooden colonial molding frames the painting; and an oak step, matching the color and textures of the painted steps, protrudes from the staircase at the bottom.

The painting must have made an impression as I’ve used trompe-l’oeil technique myself in some of my artwork.

Seed packets

Seed packets on a garden bench

Window Treatment

Adding a window without construction

You may have seen this device used by artists, such as Julian Beever, whose anamorphic illusions are created by a distortion that enhances a three-dimensional effect. When I read over his web page, he wrote that he worked as a street busker in various busy thoroughfares throughout Europe, practicing his 2-D techniques using pastels on sidewalks. When visiting Venice in 2008, I took this photograph. Now I wonder if this art was his.

Venice Painting

In another example, Eric Johnson, a Swedish photographer, installed a 3-D photograph in one of the main squares in Stockholm with his Mind the Step creation, which is a perfect lead-in to my misstep at the museum. On New Year’s Day I returned to the art museum, accompanying the Philadelphia Chorus, to take photographs and videos of their holiday concert. Between concerts, my son and I wandered through the galleries and came across the Staircase Group painting. Without thinking, I asked John to place his foot on the step with the idea that I would carry the illusion further in a photograph. Earlier I had asked a guard if the museum allowed non-flash photography, which is permitted.

Staircase Group2j

Reflection brings Anxiety and some Relief

When I returned home and began researching the painting, I then realized we had touched the piece, breaking the rule about refraining from touching artwork! I was horrified. What if everyone put their foot on the step? It would be ruined in no time at all. I sat in front of the computer, reading more about the painting. Had the illusion distracted me from the fact the step was actually part of the painting? According to several accounts of when the painting was first displayed, George Washington supposed tipped his hat to the boys on the staircase thinking they were really there. I read in Marcel Duchamp in Perspective by Joseph Masheck,

The main feature of Charles Wilson Peale’s Staircase Group . . . is the extreme, quasi-Dadaistic, illusionism by which the imaginative space of the picture invades the real space of the gallery: a real wooden step (now reconstructed, but originally planned) extends out from the bottom of the canvas . . . (p. 7)

Ah, was I saved by the fact that the step was reconstructed? Given that the museum places ribbons across chairs to remind visitor not to sit in the displays, I asked myself why they didn’t place a reminder note at the the step. In the book, Citizen Spectator: Art, Illusion, and Visual Perception in Early National  America, Wendy Bellion quotes a catalogue published in 1854 that recounted how viewers of the Staircase Group would place a foot on the first step. (p. 92). Well, that somewhat relieved my conscience that the urge to step was just about irresistible.

One of the web pages of the Philadelphia Museum of Art states, “let your creativity soar” but from now on, I will watch my step.

Transformation of Clay

How a Heap of Mud Becomes Something

I’ve been away from sculpting for a while, but now with a few new ideas, its time to get back to carving clay. I enrolled in a class at the Community Arts Center with Bob Deane, potter extraordinaire.

Down the Rabbit Hole

White Rabbit, Wikipedia

White Rabbit, Wikipedia

A tree in my front yard became the inspiration for a whimsical addition: the door to the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, the novel written by Lewis Carroll in 1865. In Chapter One of the book, the story introduces us to the rabbit wearing the iconic waistcoat and carrying a pocket watch. The rabbit’s classic line, “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” reminds us of the ever-present passing of time and the immediate responsibilities we carry.

The project began with buying a 25-pound bag of sculpting clay. The clay is soft and malleable, perfect for making objects; but for creating walls for the rabbit hole and door, I needed to create slabs that would harden so that they could stand and then be attached together. That process included rolling the clay into flat pieces and allowing them to dry either by putting them under a heat lamp or letting them dry out over time. Once the slabs were solid but not completely dry, I could attach the pieces by using a paste of clay and water after roughing up the surfaces. Before attaching the pieces, I carved out the door so that it would lay flat allowing me to add the details including the hinges and door handle.

The rabbit began as a two wads of clay, one for the body and the other the head. Once I figured the right sizes, I roughly hollowed out the two, and adding feet and arms. I attached the two pieces, and added extra clay to form the waistcoat. Creating a chain for the watch is almost impossible in clay, so I’m going to use a metal chain, which I will attach when the rabbit is finished. I made openings for the chain, making sure that with a 23% shrinkage, the chain would still fit through the opening. With the clay at the right consistency, I carved out the details. I used three or four pictures as guides.

Slides reveal the transformation from slabs of clay to whimsical art for the yard . . .  with help a little help from my friends, with Jean, assisting with the painting, and Bob, who advised on the glazing technique.

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Terrarium Centerpiece

Fairy House in GardenFor the next project, I carved a “wee house,” inspiration coming from Pinterest, pages which display every kind of fairy house imaginable. Years ago, I had  carved a few houses for my garden and enjoyed the project.

This house required a great deal of measuring for all the pieces to come together. Not all parts, especially the windows, are perfectly square. With clay, it is easy to add a bit here and there to make the pieces line up. I gained a new-found respect for carpenters, knowing that they could not do as much fudging with wood as I did with clay. The most difficult part was getting the roof to align with each side, especially the tall center window. Eventually, I would like to create a terrarium around the house.

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Imagine, Make It So: Following my Own Advice

My last project was more abstract and larger than the other two. At one point attempting to close it up at the top, I thought I might have inadvertently caused the entire piece of fall to pieces. I quickly added extra clay on the inside to support the structure. I applied Bobby’s white glaze and sent it to the gas kiln. A little Jon Luke Pickard and a little John Lennon were the inspiring forces to this project, which will find its way into the garden.

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Evolution of a Mural at Swarthmore College

The Artist: David “Dee” Craig

IMG_5192Early in the Fall semester, Lee Smithy, Associate Professor of Sociology Peace and Conflict Studies Program, announced that David “Dee” Craig, a mural artist from Belfast, Northern Ireland, had been granted a residency by the Tri-College Creative Residencies Program.

Dee  was raised in a working class community of Belfast, and those experiences focused his art. “Fear, pain and solitude; the discrepancies and gap between the rich and poor are also emotions which Dee aims to portray.” Dee has completed art projects in his neighborhoods in Belfast, working with the Ulster Museum, and outside of Northern Ireland, including the US, Israel and Spain.

This description of his artistic style explains Dee’s approach to his work.

He uses bold hard lines to represent the strength and steadfastness that working class people ooze, while at the same time using dark colours drawn from thoughts and feelings to portray a somewhat lack of aspiration imbedded in the set in stone belief some view as ‘imprisonment’ in a level or class of life. Brighter colours are also used to represent how we can over come these obstacles to strive forward in life and adapt in a more modern society.  About Dee

As part of the residency, the College commissioned Dee to paint a mural on campus, and Lee invited community members to take part in planning meetings to discuss the theme and content of the mural. During these meetings faculty, staff and students brainstormed ideas. Lee sent the notes and suggestions to Dee. Within a few weeks, Dee sent preliminary sketches back to Lee so that we could offer feedback.

Collage Project in Kohlberg Hall

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At the first residency event, Dee and Paul Downie, mural artist who has been consultant and instructor for the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and Director of the Community Arts Center in Wallingford, installed a mural in the Sociology and Anthropology wing of Kohlberg Hall. The artists composed a collage of colorful designs on a wall facing the windows overlooking Parrish Hall. What was once a rather bland entrance to the second floor, now featured a masterpiece of color.

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Opening Exhibit & Discussion


On October 24, an exhibit in McCabe Library Atrium opened: “Murals, Memory and Transformations: The Mural Art of David “Dee” Craig in Northern Ireland. Lee interviewed Dee, followed by a question and answer session with the audience.

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Meanwhile, college staff erected a tent to serve as the studio, and in addition, assembled scaffolding along the wall.

Mural Unfolds

Over the next several weeks, Dee painted the various sections of the mural. At the early stages the brilliant colors against the white canvas were striking. I could see the beginnings of an inspiring piece. In the slides below, the mural progresses from the first sketches to the installation on the wall.

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November 18, 2013

Final Mural Resize




Northern Ireland Mural Artist Begins Creative Residency at Swarthmore College

Troubled Walls


The Bumper Book: Enchanting Stories from Childhood

Bumper BookWhen I was a child, the book I treasured most was The Bumper Book: A Harvest of Stories and Verse. The condition of my book would not command the $350 that this vintage edition is selling for on eBay: the binding is gone, pages are torn and the cover is well-worn. Published in 1946, and given to me for my fourth birthday, these stories, fables and poems were my bedtime companions. “Wynken, Blynken and Nod” by Eugene Field, “Animal Crackers” by Christopher Morley and “The Swing” by Robert Louis Stevenson were some of my favorites. The colorful illustrations, printed on heavy glossy paper, fascinated me, drawing me into the stories because of the sweet depictions of the children in their vintage clothing.

 W, B, and Nod2

Thoughts on Anachronisms

One particular poem featured vignettes of the days of the week, illustrated with a little girl doing chores for each day. Around the turn of the 20th century, women’s chores were assigned a day of the week, as described on the blog, A Hundred Years Ago. When I was a child, I loved play houses, and the settings in these illustrations seemed to take place in child-sized surroundings. I marveled that somewhere children played in these finely crafted miniature homes.

The Week’s Calendar

Monday, Watch the bubbles fly –


Tuesday, See the wash get dry –
Wednesday, Mend with all our might  –


Thursday, Make things clean and bright –
Friday, Bad for dust and flies  –


Saturday, Good for cakes and pies.
Sunday, From all tasks we’re free
After church we have our tea.
–Frances Heilprin

Because the little girl was cleaning and cooking in these picture frames, I wonder about the message that gave me about preparing for the eventual role of running a house. And then I wondered again, was that such an unfortunate model? Regardless of our path in life, we do have to take care of a home, either as a single person or with a partner and children. Of course, the drawings would have been more socially progressive if she had a boy to help out.

In our hierarchy of important jobs, our culture views work inside the home as a lower value. Yet today, with so many demands on our time, managing a home is a difficult responsibility. Cleanliness, orderliness, household finances and meal preparation offer considerable challenges. Work inside the home is the glue that keeps any society held together. This is honorable and necessary work that is best shared by all in the household.

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My  laundry circa 1949.

Question: Artistic Greatness

Eulalie Banks, a British/American illustrator, born in 1895 and who lived to be 102 years old, did all the artwork in the book.  In her obituary, Nicholas Tucker wrote,

Eulalie Banks illustrated over 50 children’s books during her long lifetime. Never a great artist, she was always a popular one.

Interesting how the terms never a great artist, fill the second line. Really? I’ve seen many testimonials on the Internet to the Bumper Book, as adults reflect on how the stories and artwork became part of their childhood. Many, like myself, read the stories to their own children. The delightful illustrations offered a window into a rich fantasy world, enhancing the writing of the authors and poets. Conventional interpretations of greatness rarely include the breadth of experiences of children, which would lead to wider interpretations of artistic influence and “greatness”.

More on Antique Books

Children’s Books Online: The Rosetta Project: Largest Collection of illustrated antique books on-line . . . we think.

Literature with Girls as Strong Characters

Strong Girl Character: Middle Grade and Young Adult Novels


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