Humble Contributions to the Peoples' History

Posts tagged ‘Art’

Photo Challenge: Life Imitates Art

As a photographer, this is one of my favorite ways to capture a moment in art. I’ll take a selfie by reflecting in a minor in a museum and voilà, I’m part of a famous exhibit.  Or I’ll put myself or a friend in a painting or sculpture. Sure, this is just bit of whimsy, but when I try these experiments, they always make me laugh.

Recently, I visited Rockefeller Center and, having some extra time, looked around the stores in the Rockefeller building. Murals hung on the wall, including this one of NBC television celebrities. I posed in front of the mural. I then put a sepia overlay onto the photograph.


I take the initiative to add a third-party to Charles Wilson Peale’s Staircase Group painting.

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In this train station mural in Philadelphia, one might wonder who are the real people.

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Life imitating art or art imitating life? The fellow at the crate dolly is wearing a red shirt and blue pants like the fellow in the mural.  What are the chances?

Life Imitating Art

Finding an excuse to take a selfie in the reflection of a Christmas ball.


Weekly Photo Challenge: Life Imitates Art


Love’s Legacy on the Elevated Line, Mural Arts Tour, Philadelphia

Years ago, I rode the Market/Frankfort Elevated Line into the city for my summer job, when the General Electric Company occupied a building on Walnut Street and 30th Street. So I thought that this tour would remind me of that time, but the city had renovated all the stations, and some of the familiar sites along the route had disappeared. As I looked through my reflection in the window, I wondered about all the passengers stepping on and off the train. Where are they now? Much has happened over those years, and I never could have predicted that I would return to ride the el on The Love Letter Mural Tour. Is my camera out of focus or is it the distortion of tears, as these moments pass away as quickly as those many years. I look to the murals for inspiration.

Over 3,000 murals occupy places in the Philadelphia landscape. The mural program began in 1986 as a anti-graffiti initiative. I’ve written several posts that have referenced some of these murals: Art Imitating Life and Using Art to Create Scenes. A popular project in the mural series is Steve Powers’ A Love Letter For You.  Fifty rooftop murals follow the Market Street corridor from 45th to 63rd Streets. In these love letters to his girlfriend, the artist expresses a tender reconciliation, while also showing his appreciation for his neighborhoods in West Philadelphia. In Powers’ own words,

Love Letter is “a letter for one, with meaning for all” and speaks to all residents who have loved and for those who long for a way to express that love to the world around them. He considers the project “my chance to put something on these rooftops that people would care about.”

The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and PBS have all featured stories on the Love Letter Tour.

The tour began at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which is both a school and a museum, and describes its mission as, “promoting the transformative power of art and art making.” I felt as if I had crash landed there upon seeing this scene in the adjacent alley way, Lenfest Plaza.

Jordan Griska created this sculpture in 2011 from a Navy combat airplane; and as if finding a plane nose-dived into the sidewalk is not surprising enough, inside the cockpit a greenhouse supports a garden.

The museum was equally fascinating, with many interesting displays and exhibits, which was an added a bonus to the start of the tour.

IMG_2108We were fortunate to have as our guide, Harry Kyriakodis, a historian who has written several books on Philadelphia history including Philadelphia’s Lost Waterfront, Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward and The Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Harry is a founding member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides.

Harry related the history of how and why the murals were created by Powers, who began his career as a graffiti artist and eventually earned a Fulbright scholarship. After handing each tour participant a token for their ride on the  Market/Frankford line, we walked to the 15th Street el stop.

Ride with a View



One percent of the construction cost of the station had to be spent on an artistic representation.

Harry pointed out the murals as we sped through the Philly neighborhoods. We stopped at several of station platforms to study the paintings. One of the first murals we viewed was this one along the side of a brick building:

I had a dream

Ah, dare to dream

What makes these series of murals so compelling is that they arise from tattered rooftops, with crumbling chimneys, rotating vent fans, noisy air-conditioners and rusty gutters as companions. The contexts make the murals even more endearing, affirming that love can spring from the most mundane of locations. Despite these rooftop distractions, the messages are clear.


Standing on the platform


A wish


Seems so


That would be amazing

Powers and his team created the murals by painting directly on the walls without the protective cloth that is used on most of the city’s murals, which means that the paint is slowly fading. For now, these messages offer to the el riders the inspiration of love that reconciled and lasted. That’s all I needed to know.

Photography Tip: Using Art to Create Scenes

In Art Imitating Life, I posted a photograph in which workers were unloading a truck and, by coincidence, that scene was depicted exactly in the mural right above their heads. It’s delightful to catch those moments, but photographers can set up similar interactions with art, creating an entire new pictorial presentation, while sometimes adding a bit of whimsy. Another blog post, Mea Culpa: Breaking the Rules at the Art Museum, has an example of creating a new vignette from an old painting.

Here’s a series of photographs that incorporates a new portrayal of a work of art. The photographer doesn’t just take a picture of art, but rather creates a new interpretation from the surrounds or by including their own additions to the scene.

subway station

The escalator provides the conduit for real-life subway patrons to become part of a scene of a train station mural.

Sign Duplicationjpg

Message on the wall replicates the sign the men are holding, reinforcing the theme.


Using a mirror in a still life display to insert a selfie.

Black and White

A couple stands in front of a mural in West Philadelphia. Since the mural is painted in black and white, I changed the color in the photograph to match the background.


When traveling through France we were often lost, and to tell that story, I am asking directions to unresponsive statuary.

Have you incorporated an interesting art piece into any of your photographs to create a new vision? Leave a link in the comments!



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.

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


Art Imitating Life

on 47th and Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia.

The city of Philadelphia displays the largest collection of public murals in the country. One of the 2,000 murals rests on the wall outside of the A-Space, a collectively run anarchist community center and art gallery. Titled The Heart of Baltimore Avenue, the muralist, David Ginn, depicts West Philly neighbors working together.

Passing by on May Day 2013, caught this moment . . . which stands as a tribute to all workers who make our cities great.

Life Imitating Art

An Enchanting Isle off the West Coast of Scotland (Part 1)

The Magic of Faeries: Isle of Skye 

Mae journals on the hillside

Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller.  Celtic Saying

Years ago, before I had much travel experience, I journeyed to Scotland, with my teenaged daughter, unsure what such an adventure would bring–especially since we would be traveling without the support of an escorted tour. We ventured across Scotland on the Haggis Bus, a bright yellow mini-bus driven by young Scotsmen, all of whom could tell humorous and fantastic stories of their homeland while negotiating the winding roadways with the confidence and vigor that youth brings.  As we left Edinburgh, the bus followed a narrow highway far into the emerald countryside, passing wee villages lined with stoned walls and whitewashed houses topped with brick chimneys.  The bus rolled along on the “wrong side” –my attention riveted to the road ahead.

Our bus stopped just outside the Isle of  Skye, so we were on our own to navigate the remote sections of the island by rental car. We planned our adventure to include Skye because the descriptions from the Whitewave Outdoor Center offered spectacular views of coastline via kayak.

The narrow road ribboned its way along the coastline from Portee to Uig. The ocean stretched against the sky and hills, the wind scattering the clouds across the sea. Villages nestled on inlets, the island’s geological formations creating ragged edges around the island. Drawn into the landscape, we stopped often along the way to take short walks or to sit in green pastures that fell to jagged ridges and rocky shores below us.

Faerie Glen 

Skye, which already had an otherworldly spirit, became even more so upon discovering the Faerie Glen, just east of Uig. We passed through the gate, hidden from the main road, and followed a single-track car path through conical-shaped hillocks. Sheep dotted the landscape, their soft baaing breaking the silence of the hillsides. Further down the way, a narrow stream flowed into a pond where dancing sounds of water trickled through the deep green. Ferns and foxglove covered the lower elevations, and higher up deep ridges encircled the mounds.

We peeked behind rocks and into crevices created by gnarled tree roots. If faeries ever existed, this would be the place.

Bovine observer: we were not alone.

Faerie Bridge 

We found the Faerie Bridge traversing a small stream on the road to Dunvegan. We waded through the mounds of colored brush surrounding the stone archway to explore all views of the bridge.

As we leaned on the arch to view the other side, we wondered if we had arrived at a portal to another world, the cool dampness on this side, the warm sunlight on the other. According to legend, the chief of the MacLeod Clan married a faerie, but alas, after twenty years, she had to return to her fairyland. On this bridge the fairy bade farewell to her husband.

In the photograph below a misty light cloud appears left of center. I’m not sure why.

Memories Linger

Upon returning home, the magic of Skye stayed with me and inspired a flurry of artistic creations: a mural on a wall, a majolica tile and a wee bridge from clay.

One more project remained: recreating a magical place in the garden. Part II coming next.

Appreciating the Needlework of our Grandmothers: Rethinking Four Issues

Mae Kerr

In Celebration of International Women’s Day, March 8

Years ago my Mother gave me my Grandmother’s needlework from the early 1900s. Linen tablecloths, napkins, handmade doilies, place mats, coasters and other assorted pieces remained in a disheveled pile in the attic for years. Occasionally, I would pull out a doily or bureau scarf to use around the house, but with so many pieces to choose, most were left untouched.

I could not find much information on the history of crocheting, needlepoint and embroidery as part of women’s lives around the turn of the 20th Century, although some sites did have information on quilting. Many sites sell patterns and vintage embroideries, but I found little information on women’s specific part in the history of these skills. On the website Crochet Insider, an article states,

In the United States, there is virtually no written history of crochet. Of the few books providing historical treatment of crochet, only one had a portion dedicated to American crochet history. Denise Levoie

To reexamine these pieces of art became my goal. Listed below are five issues that I faced and solutions to those problems.

1.  Overwhelming quantity. I couldn’t figure what to do with so many items, and stains and disrepair characterized many of the pieces. I couldn’t just throw them into the washing machine so I thought it best to leave them until I could figure out the proper washing.

Solution: I sorted the pieces into categories, deciding which pieces could be given away, saved and restored. I planned to make a collage of the needlework for each female member of the family. With everything organized, each piece then became its own unique piece and its value more readily apparent.

Crochet: Pineapple Pattern

2. The question of utilitarian value. How does one find a use for a doily? I can see how they could be used as furniture protectors, but modern glass and plastic glass holders work better. For modern decor, a lace doily just doesn’t fit. Certainly, having a linen tablecloth with a crocheted edge is beautiful, but washing a vintage tablecloth frequently probably is not wise, running the risk of ruining the fabric.

Fan Quilt

Detail: Crochet on sheets/pillowcase

Solution:  I decided to go “shabby chic” with our guest room.  I bought furniture at thrift shops and resurrected some pieces from the attic. The doilies and quilts worked well in the room. I carefully washed the sheets and pillowcases and put them on the bed. I used some of the smaller pieces as blankets in a doll’s bed.

By the 1920s the color of fabrics changed as women began to prefer pastel and light color schemes. I would date the quilt above from that time period. Quilting was transforming from a utilitarian craft to an art form. Art has a greater positive connotation than craft, but is this the result of our culture’s elitist values? Should we reject the art classification, which in some ways diminishes utilitarian value? I could argue that these creations are decorative, and, therefore art, as the practical use has almost completely disappeared due to the delicate nature of the fabric and needlework.

3. Generational distance and missing the oral history. These pieces came from my father’s mother, who had passed away long before I was born. My mother’s mother had no such collection. She came from the tenements of Clyde Bank, Scotland, raising eight children on poverty wages. According to the Internet, women who had some free time were able to work on needlework projects. Although her husband was an auto worker, Mae Kerr did not work outside the home, allowing her time to crochet and quilt.

On a cursory inspection, the pile of linens seemed amorphous . . . sort of lacy stuff, I would call it. Was it lace–crochetted, knitted, or embroidered? Were the threads silk, linen or cotton?

Crochet on Apron

Solution: Research on the Internet provided information on the various needle crafts.  I was able to identify the quilt patterns my Grandmother used. I also spoke with several women who could tell me about the different styles, sewing techniques and fabrics. After some investigation, I now have some familiarity the terminology, such as the various kinds of laces, tatting, needle point and white work, just to name a few.


4. Lack of appreciation for women’s artistic contributions.  As a student, I studied the great works of art, especially painting and sculpture, but fiber arts, especially as practiced by women, was seriously neglected in the artistic cannon of works. In the mid-1990s I enrolled in an art history course at Swarthmore College with Michael Cothren, and for the first time, read an academic article on the artistic merits of quilts. Museums display quilts in huge frames, which I found somewhat disconcerting as that removed the context of the bed and bedroom from the display. Does anything make a room look more cozy than a quilt on a bed?  The Alliance of American Quilts established their mission “to document, preserve, and share our American quilt heritage by collecting the rich stories that historic and contemporary quilts, and their makers, tell about our nation’s diverse peoples and their communities.”

Solution: Learning more about fabric art assists in understanding this art form. A good article I can recommend is “The Distinction between Art and Craft” by Sally J. Markowitz. Websites I found helpful:

Time ‘n Thyme Again

Accent Linen and Embroidery

How to Clean Vintage Doilies

Lizzie’s Vintage Linens and Threads

Lacis Museum of Lace & Textiles

Detail: Tatting

By sharing my Grandmother’s needlework on the web, I hope that I can contribute, in some small way, to an appreciation of these artistic creations. Women’s International Day stands for decent work for women. With the focus on that goal, we must ensure that women, whether working outside or inside the home, have time to pursue self-expression. Frantic work schedules that press on a women’s free time and low wages that demand that women hold two or three jobs works against the common good, depriving our culture of untapped invention and creativity.

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