Humble Contributions to the Peoples' History

Posts tagged ‘Art’

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.

Five Ways to Uncover Nature’s Treasures in the Ordinary

Whether a photographer, artist or observer of nature consider these few suggestions for discovering ways to capture, as well as learn about, nature that is in front of us everyday. While travel often heightens our senses to novel experiences and new worlds, what we have before us offers just as many serendipities.  Exciting discoveries await us in our everyday experiences.

1. Explore your own back yard.

Typically when traveling, there’s little time for photographing complex eco-systems and micro-worlds. Grand landscapes understandably command most of the photographer’s or artist’s attention. Our local neighborhoods, however, offer opportunities to study over time the many niches that nature fills in our back yards or community parks.

Caved out of farm land during the early 1950’s building boom, my neighborhood retains a small wooded area in the back yards. Most of the land surrounding the neighborhood has been developed, but a number of parks and preserved lands nestle between the housing developments, strip malls, office buildings and roadways. Despite the suburban encroachment, a number of animal species live here or visit from time to time. White-tailed deer graze through the forest and sometimes come near the house to find salad fixings in the hostas. Occasionally, a red fox trots through and groundhogs appear once in a while. Regular visitors include chipmunks, mice, voles, moles, squirrels, toads and rabbit. Bird species observed are wrens, chickadees, woodpeckers, humming birds, robins, crows, starlings, grackle, nuthatch, titmouse, chickadee, blue jay, cowbird, cardinal, morning dove, house sparrows and goldfinch, catbird, mockingbird, junko, and red-tailed hawk.

2. Look on the upside to Invasive Species: The Holly and the Ivy

The natural ecology of our yard falls apart at the ground level where English Ivy has taken over and blocked the natural succession of indigenous plants. Someday I would like to pull it out and allow the woodland flowers to come back. Another invasive species that has been successful is the Holly, as seedlings often find homes in the soil in the woods and cultivated gardens. Finding any redeeming qualities in these is difficult, but it is possible to glean a few advantages from their presence. These plants are great subjects for art projects, even if  just a simple water-color painting. In addition, instead of purchasing greens, the holly and ivy provide greenery for wreaths and garlands.

And Sweet Pea

Another plants that sometimes overtakes the garden is the Sweet Pea. The delicate pink flowers and fine little threads make a great subject for a pen and ink. Enjoy the fragrance but be advised to not eat the little peas that it produces.

3. Check the debris piles after a rain.

When the ground is damp and boggy, that’s a good time to check for unusual species of mushroom that grow from the forest debris. On a particularly humid day, these two mushrooms grew from the dampened soil.

Indian Pipe

Mystery Mushroom

Indian Pipe, also known as the “Corpse Plant,” grows in rich soil often under pines. Indian Pipe attracts bees providing a food source for them. I could not definitively identify the orange mushrooms. Let me know if you know the name.

4. Spend time observing a small environmental niche.

I almost missed this little guy hiding in a tree nook. He seems to understand camouflage pretty well and found some moisture there, as well. The American toad is common, but only two species of toads live in Pennsylvania.

American Toad

After taking some time to photograph hosta leaves, this little spider popped out from behind a stem. I couldn’t figure out why the spider appeared carrying a soccer ball until I did some research. Turns out she is a Nursery Web Spider, appropriately named, who carries her egg case wherever she goes. I had to admire her facility moving through the leaves with no trouble. I imagined myself trying to carry an object half my size over hill and dale. Eventually mommy spider builds a nursery tent for her egg sac when hatching time arrives and guards it protectively.

Nursery Web Spider

5. Study the frequent visitors to the yard. Often we look for the exotic, but even common species offers spectacular results and opportunities for experimentation. The Eastern Swallowtail is one of the most common butterflies in this part of the country. The bit of blue on her wings identifies her as a female.  According to Wikipedia, the species prefers red or pink flowers. Really. Photographing common species provides the opportunity for practice when that exotic comes along.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

5. Remember that late fall also provides artistic opportunities. 

Sure “all the leaves are brown and sky is gray” but late autumn offers a unique view of patterns and textures. The Chinese Lantern, a weed that often crops up in the yard, displays charming lantern-like seed pods. A member of the potato family, the Chinese Lantern supposedly has herbal uses, although requires some care and knowledge to use properly. In the fall the lantern transforms to lace revealing a golden seed tucked inside.

Chinese Lantern

By the Fall the hydrangea flowers have dried, and although I like to bring the puffy floral balls inside, our cats find them tasty but later regret the urge. Like the lacy lantern, by late November the tiny flowers keep only their veins displaying their infrastructure pattern. Free of their covering and color, the design of their pedal foundation becomes clear.


Observing nature in our neighborhood provides the opportunity for reflection and revelation. On this backyard exploratory a revelation came to me about perseverance. Whether plants or animals, all have found a way to survive and preserver. The ivy doesn’t know it’s an invasive. Weeds come back despite efforts to eradicate them. Creatures find places to live in nature’s crevices. The spider will carry that egg sack everywhere in her garden home, and the Swallowtail will find that pink flower. Maybe what amazes us is that we share that quality with all life.

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