My newest piece, The Saffron Gatherers is inspired from an ancient fresco painting known by the same name.
It is 40x30 inches, using drawing, painting, inkjet transfers and many, many layers of acrylic medium to create a distressed, encaustic-like effect.
I was interested in recreating, but not duplicating, the figure of one youthful saffron gatherer, who I have taken to calling “My Girl".
The Beautiful Frescos of Thera
Ancient Thera was occupied by the same people who lived on Crete, a people we call the Minoans.
The Pompeii of the Aegean
Around 1600 BCE, Thera blew its top.
It Was Kind of a Big Deal.
Although it may not have destroyed the Minoan civilization, it probably weakened it to the extent that they were eventually taken over by the mainland Greek civilization of Mycenae. It may have even caused a volcanic winter that reached as far away as China.
Actually, there were a series of eruptions before the caldera collapsed. One of the first eruptions blew ash into the air and covered Akrotiri, which is why the fresco have been preserved.
The Frescos of Akrotiki
Minoan Art- The Stuff of Dreams
As I said, the paintings from the Minoan civilization have sparked our collective imagination and inspired not only archeologists, but poets, artists, spiritualists, and pseudo-sociologists. It captures our imagination with such fervor, that it has led to a fair amount irresponsible scholarship. There has been wild speculations as to the beliefs, values and societal structure of the Minoans. Laymen and scholars alike have projected their fantasies of a peaceful, woman-centered society onto the vestiges of this long-past civilization-- a sort of ancient Age of Aquarius.
And Who Can Blame Them?
How much of this wishful thinking is actually true?
No one knows.
Yet, there is something truly unique about the art from the Minoans that cannot be denied.
Most art during that period, such as the ancient Egyptians or the Babylonians, was beautiful, but schematic and completely formalized.
The art produced for these and other civilizations were “instruments of propaganda... To serve either the reputation of the immortals or the reputation after death of their earthly representatives”*
In contrast, “the freedom of movement and the sense of vitality which emanates from Minoan art, an art which is the creation of a less rigid society... adapted to a habitat in which motion contrast and sudden change predominate.." **
In short, the art of the Minoans is often winsome, spontaneous, individualistic, and even funny.
Painting the Murals
First, let’s talk about some of the conventions in the paintings of Thera. Because of the technology and pigments available at the time, they had a limited amount of colors to work with, only black,red, blue and yellow ochre. They got the most out of this limited palette by juxtaposing colors, along with only a bit of mixing. There was no use of green that is discernible.
Then, let’s talk about how they signified the identities of the figures.
People of different ages had different hairstyles. Mature men and women have long, luxuriant black hair. Maturity is also expressed by a double chin and rolls of flesh on the stomach (very realistic!)
Young adults have short, curly hair.
Children had shorn heads, which is indicated by a blue scalp. As they grow a little bit older, little sections of hair would be allowed to grow. So, they have little pigtails (or, what in the 1980’s we used to call rat-tails) coming out at sort of odd intervals.
Boys are often portrayed nude, while the girls are always clothed.
The Story of The Saffron Gatherers
The Saffron Gatherers is in a building called Xeste 3, and wraps around the walls of a room on the second floor called Room 3a. The north wall shows a majestic female figure seated on a dias. She is dressed magnificently and has a snake going up her back and over her hair. She is accompanied by what seems to be a Griffin. In front of her, a young woman and a monkey (monkeys are depicted doing human things on Thera- what fun!) pour crocuses out in offering to the woman. (This figure has been identified as the Goddess of Nature, the Potnia.)
But my image does not concern this scene. My girl is on the east wall.
She is one of the most famous figures from this archeological complex, and is often the image that is used on the cover of books or magazines devoted to art from the Minoan period.
The next figure is who I depict, and that seems to be so loved by people around the world.
I love the fact that in the same room that depicts a Goddess, there is also a scene where an older girl is telling a younger girl to hurry up.
I was interested in recreating, but not duplicating, this lovely, young gamine.
When drawing from some source material, a typical technique for an artist is to use a grid.
After creating a grid for the original image, you simply make a corresponding grid on the blank art substrate or page. This helps your eye to “map” where points are in the original image, and to objectively observe the shapes.
The rhythm of the original fresco is beautiful and I wanted to capture it, so I added diagonal lines that help describe the general shape and movement of the figure, and create a kind of underpinning, or ley lines.
The frescoes of Thera did not come intact. They were unearthed in tiny pieces, and methodically reassembled off-site, like a puzzle. When I see an image of The Saffron Gatherers, I'm viewing a heavily distressed image. I have no wish to "clean it up" and reproduce what I think it originally looked like. The fresco's partial destruction and the passage of time add to its appeal for me.
The next series of steps was to create layer after layer of effects, attempting to express this aesthetic of distressed beauty.
An Amalgamation of Elements
I got playful with the imagery with some additions.
At the top of the panel, I painted in a blue strip. I thought it would be either a blue sky, or a glimpse of the sea. This is a way to express that My Girl lived on an island. She would have been surrounded by sea and sky (this is Santorini, after all!) Borrowing from a different Thera fresco, the mural from Room 5 in The West House, I painted dancing dolphins.
I find it fascinating how the lively elements of My Girl, the dancing dolphins and saffron flowers, create a striking contrast with the immense destruction from this catastrophic event.
One of my finishing touches was to take the powdery crumbs of a bright orange pastel and sprinkle it various places, to signify the saffron. I doubt they would willingly disperse the precious crop so wastefully, but I felt it would be another whimsical element, adding to the magical atmosphere of my imaginings.
The Tiny Book of Thera
At the time of this entry, the book is a work in progress. If you click HERE, you can see a short blog entry about the book, and see a video of me flipping through the pages.
In the future, I may start another large work based on some of the images in the book- who knows?
* Christos Doumas, The Wall Paintings of Thera, (Kapon Editions, 1992) Pg 22
A while ago, I took an amazing journey to visit prehistoric cave paintings in the Dordogne Valley in France. Not only did I and my companions get personalized tours of the caves, we also got to create art to express and process the what we experienced.
The artmaking was facilitated by Kirah Van Sickle. She had us make tiny, handmade books, which we adorned using stencils, watercolor pencils, collage, and monotypes.
This way of making art was so fun, and such an effective form of expression that I decided to continue this playful practice and make books as a sort of “sketchbook”, a place to experiment and work out my thoughts.
I started one to accompany my journey through creating The Saffron Gatherers.
I found myself working on the book and the larger piece simultaneously, each aiding the other.
At the time of this entry, the book is a work in progress! In the future, I may start another large piece inspired by some of the pages of this book.
This amazing Mesolithic site has inspired me to create a haunting work of art that seeks to express the tension between our imaginings of times past, and our scientific knowledge of the same.
Star Carr- what a groovy name.
A carr is a British term for a swamp. I had to look it up.
According to Google Maps, there is Star Carr Lakes fishing pond and Star Carr fish hatchery, and the Star Carr Cottages. But, about 30 miles north, there is Star Carr, the famous Mesolithic archeological site.
What Is the Mesolithic Era?
It’s the Middle Stone Age.
Not helpful? How 'bout this?
It is a period of time between the Ice Age and the Agricultural Revolution. So, it’s the time between when people were nomadic and when people started to farm in permanent settlements. During the Mesolithic, people were what would be called semi-nomadic, with sites they would return to cyclically as the seasons revolved and resources presented themselves.
All other areas of the world, we have different terms to describe this transition, and in some parts of the world, this transition never occurred at all.
Star Carr was on the edge of a huge glacial lake. People returned to this site again and again over hundreds of years. Over time, this large lake shrank, became a marsh, then a peat bog, and now farmland.
What Makes Star Carr So Special?
The Mesolithic Age in northern Europe is hard to track. It’s difficult to locate artifacts from this place and time, because:
1. People were on the move, so they didn’t have a lot of stuff.
2. Much of what they made was from organic material. Think bone, willow branches, hides, wood, reeds. Think of a marshy environment and what resources that would provide.
3. Northern Europe is wet, and a lot of the soil is acidic. So, much of what these people left behind has rotted away.
Artifacts and remains are well preserved in either dry environments (think of all those mummies in Egypt) OR in low-oxygen environments… like deep in the mud of a marsh. Or peat.
Life on the Lake
In and amongst these logs are a very high concentration of tools and animal remains.
But this platform was not only used for lake access. It was clearly a place for ritual as well.
The Waters Edge
Water is sacred. Water is Life.
Everywhere around the world, there is evidence of people ritually depositing objects into bodies of water, like pennies into a wishing well.
Dozens of headdresses, or “frontlets” have been found deep within the peat at Star Carr, fashioned from the skulls of red deer, their antlers still attached.
The tops of the skulls were separated, hollowed out and smoothed. Two holes, probably for straps, were bored through. The antlers were trimmed, and halved lengthwise to reduce weight.
My Process with Star Carr
In the upper panel, I attempt to depict what I imagine the experience might have been like during the time these frontlets were fashioned. The moment when a group of people, people just like us, created this magical object, and deposited it into the life-giving waters of the lake they relied on for sustenance.
In this panel, you can see the semi-submerged log platform, the shining moon above, and an ethereal red deer regarding us by the waters edge.
I imagine the large, hovering frontlet as maybe the spirit of the red deer, with whatever magic was attributed to it, gazing at us, watching over us, maybe threatening us, we just don't know.
The lower panel has many images, printed on various papers and collaged over one another.
I reversed the picture of him and tinted it blue.
Next, I used a composite photograph of his discovery of the log platform. I am impressed by how difficult it must have been to take these images. Now we just send up a drone. Back then they had to build platforms above, and a very skilled photographer would clamber up, lie on their stomach, and shoot each picture. Later it was stitched together to create this.
I printed these images with a blue cast as a base.
Archeological science keeps evolving, and the latest excavations at Star Carr have produced a wealth of highly detailed information!
I found the aesthetics of the graphs and schema beautiful.
Here I must thank Dr. Harry Robson, who took time out from what I am sure is a very busy schedule to help me attain permission to use these images. (And by the way- he found THREE frontlets at Star Carr!)
I watched a bunch of videos on the Star Carr Project YouTube channel, and got to see archeologists actually lifting frontlets out of the mud! I couldn't resist! I took screenshots, ran them through various photo manipulations. I printed it out on tracing paper, and glued it over the image of the blue log scatter.
Art has a unique power to hold paradox. It can convey enigmatic meaning that will elude common speech.
I seek to express the tension between our imaginings of times past, and our scientific knowledge of it.
To hold as one these seemingly opposite stances makes our understanding more rich and meaningful.
Resources and Cool Links
I want to thank Patrick Wyman and his wonderful podcast Tides of History for introducing me to Star Carr. Episode about Star Carr HERE.
Star Carr has a wonderful website devoted to it, The Star Carr Archeology Project.
Finds from Star Carr can now be seen in four museums: The British Museum, the Yorkshire Museum, the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge and the Scarborough Museum.
I just got back from my Dream Vacation That is Not a Vacation.
My journey into the caves.
With the guidance of Dr. Carol Aalbers, we had special, personalized tours in multiple caves containing Paleolithic paintings.
But we didn’t just go visit the caves. We then took time to process what we experienced together using art, movement, and dream exploration.
I toured five caves, plus a rock shelter.
I realize that I am an artist who blogs, not a travel blogger, so I will simply tell you which caves I visited, then talk about the impact they had on me.
By the way- photography is not allowed inside the caves, so I am showing images I have pulled off websites devoted to the caves.
Lascaux Cave is one of the most impressive and famous Paleolithic art caves in the world. Its so famous that it had to be closed to the public- the breath of so many visitors deteriorated the paintings. So, several replicas have been made. Lascaux is the only cave I saw on this trip that was a replica.
Although the replica is truly impressive, being in the actual caves is incomparable.
Below are the four real caves I got to see.
A Profound Experience
Imagine going underground into a cave. The atmosphere is totally different than the world above. It’s cool, it’s dark, it’s damp. You shuffle along with your tour companions, contemporary human beings with backpacks and rain jackets.
Now, imagine not just hand prints, but mysterious graphic signs, dots, and beautiful, elegant drawings.
For me, it was an extraordinary, almost mystical experience.
In between the days saw the caves, we would stay at our B&B and make art. The artmaking was facilitated by Kirah Van Sickle. She guided me through art processes using materials that I am not used to, using colors I wouldn’t normally choose, in a format I’ve never done before.
First, I created two small paintings on paper, using stencils, little sponge rollers, watercolor pencils, collage, and something called a gelli plate, which is a way to make monotypes.
Then, we folded up large pieces of paper to make little tiny 3x3 inch books, which we then adorned, using the same materials.
The materials and approach was entirely different than what I normally do, and it brought me away from my routine- and my artistic tricks! I was forced to become more imaginative and loose, and it was a lot of fun.
The Essence of Art
Why do art? Why do I do what I do?
I struggle with making art I describe as "performative," by which I mean, result-oriented. I can easily slide into the territory of doing something for the sake of approval.
So, there’s a tension, because on the one hand, I want to do artwork that’s good quality and appeals to people. But on the other hand, I want to make art that purely authentic and comes from my heart.
Going into those caves and seeing work from artists/shamans from tens of thousands of years ago really brought me into direct connection with the fundamental drive humans have to dream, to communicate, to create and express ourselves. It reminds me that this is my primary missive, sales and accolades be damned.
Are there ways that I could present finished work that features my drawing? Does it have to be anything other than what it simply is?
This trip was a profound experience, and I feel very different. My hope is that this difference will continue to grow in my heart and mind, and that it will inform my artmaking from this time forward.
Now, off to make some art!
A few years ago, I read an article in Archeology Magazine, called When the Ancient Greeks Began to Write; Newly Discovered Inscriptions Help Explain How Literacy Spread.
The Cup of Nestor
The Cup of Nestor was discovered in 1954 at what had been an ancient Greek colony in Italy. The cup was probably formed and fired in 750 BC. Some years later, someone scratched letters on it. It is one of the earliest extant examples of the use of an alphabet.
What is an alphabet?
The thing that makes an alphabet an alphabet is that it has symbols that indicate consonants and vowels, in other words, smaller sound units. These symbols, or letters, can be used to indicate the sound of a word, not just a concept of a word.
This meant that it could be used to write down poetry, names, anything you like.
Before this time, writing was a skill used for very specific purposes, such as rituals or official diplomatic letters. But most of it was used for something that grew in importance as societies became more and more complex: money.
Along came the Greek alphabet.
Exactly how, where and when it was invented is pretty foggy. But what is clear is that it was developed from a writing system used by the Phoenicians, a sea-faring cluster of peoples living along the coast of today’s Lebanon and Syria. Someone took this writing system and developed it so that the sounds of words could be captured.
It took off like a house on fire. Elite men across the Greek world with its far-reaching colonies and cities started to write. Writing became cool.
It became all the rage.
So, the Cup of Nestor with its scratched inscription was a very early example of this. But what also makes even more it fascinating is that it isn’t just any old inscription, it is a joke.
One of the world’s first recorded jokes.
It’s an inside joke about old King Nestor in the Iliad. It reads: “I am the cup of Nestor, a joy to drink from. Whoever drinks this cup empty, straightaway the desire of beautiful-crowned Aphrodite will seize.”
In context, I can almost imagine the scene in which this occurred. This cup is a drinking cup. It would have been used at a symposium.
This brings me to the image I chose to lay behind my rendition of the cup.
The Tomb of the Diver
The Tomb of the Diver is a coffin-sized tomb in what was a Greek colony in southern Italy, probably created around 470 BCE. It’s made up of five limestone slabs, covered with plaster and painted with frescos.
Along the walls of this small tomb the scene of a symposium is depicted. Beautiful men are laid out on their fancy couches, drinking, talking, playing games- and flirting.
But the tradition of same-sex love affairs was strong during that time, as is demonstrated by this beautiful painting. Same-sex love in ancient Greece is a huge subject, fascinating in itself, and very very different from how we conceive of and enact same-sex relationships today. But if you were to look up “symposium” in an article or entry, often this very image is associated with it.
My artwork inspired by The Cup of Nestor blends three elements: the alphabet, a symposium, and being seized by the desire of beautiful-crowned Aphrodite.
I don’t want to completely understand or graphically illustrate this moment in time. I want to express the mystery of it. I do this by borrowing images of what remains and combining them together into an eurhythmic, evocative whole.
But ADD is also closely associated with having a creative mind. Artistic mind, attention deficit disorder, who knows where one ends and the other begins?
Distracted Mind, Artistic Mind
My mind is not organized. Information comes in the form of so many scraps of paper, fluttering about in the wind. Projects or professions that involve any complexity seems like an insurmountable undertaking.
But, I recently learned something sort of fun about my mind, and how it likes to organize itself.
I was trying to develop some sort of regular, consistent, doable habit in regards to posting on social media about my art. “Everyone” was buzzing about social media.
You know, “Everyone," don’t you? “Everyone” says:
And so on, and so on. All that resulted from this was a panicky sense of dread.
Enter, the Mind Map
Here is all is. I spent hours on this silly thing.
I tried to impress my friends by sharing it with them, but they didn’t even want to LOOK at it, and who could blame them? It seems overly elaborate and faintly ridiculous now, but the one most important thing is also true: now I know.
Now I know. Social media is no longer confusing to me. I may need a reminder of the specifics, but the tiny scraps of paper have settled down into an orderly pattern. Now I understand.
As I just wrote about in my post “Evolve or Die,” I revealed that I am starting on a new body of work, inspired by archeology and deep history. It’s really exciting, and really scary. For the first time in many years, I genuinely have no idea what I am doing. It will be an adventure into the unknown.
I am an avid consumer of archeology media and entertainment. Over the years, I have absently absorbed scraps of information. Over time, these bits of information started to formulate themselves into a loose, fluttery vision of the world.
I became filled with the desire to understand these little scraps in context, in an order, like maybe a mind map… or maybe… a time-line.
Enter, the Time-line
Fueled with this new obsession, I knew that I was not going to be able to commence on my new journey of art-making without tackling this. I took a large roll of paper, rolled it out on my wall and tacked in down.
I decided on a very general form: seven areas of the planet, drawn with seven horizontal lines. The time demarcations will be the vertical axis. But, I am still not sure what time periods I am going to depict, and where they will land. So, I started to write bits of information I find intriguing on bits of rice paper, and started to tape them up at various places. Everything at this point is in flux and movable.
I feel like a mad scientist.
Enter, the Mad Scientist
I have recently learned from The Google that there is a thing called “The Crazy Wall.” It’s a meme, stemming from the media’s dramatic use of an “evidence board” real detectives use to solve crimes. It was used to most dramatic effect in the 2001 movie *“A Beautiful Mind.”
For the first time in a long while, I am creating something that I have no real intention of putting on display or trying to sell. Somehow, I just know I need to do this. I need to capture and contain what I know, but cannot yet use. Something that simply comes out of my beautiful mind.
My beautiful, inefficient, scattered, forgetful, creative, artistic mind.
A video of me about to dive into the time-line.
*Please note that A Beautiful Mind is a movie about schizophrenia, not about a mild case of neurodivergence, like I have. I am using the evidence board in the movie as a symbol for the way I process information, and is not intended to make light of schizophrenia or mental illness and its effects.
Yes, I love archeology and ancient history.
On my last vacation, I brought books to read and some drawing materials. One book in particular grabbed me and wouldn't let go; The Sutton Hoo Story by Martin Carver. I felt moved to produce drawings inspired by what I learned and saw.
I find myself so fascinated by archeology that, at some point, I may create an entirely new body of work. It's all very speculative, but it is very exciting for me, and I wanted to share it with you now.
What is Sutton Hoo?
There is a really great movie based on a novel, both called The Dig that dramatizes the excavation of Mound 1, where some of the most impressive and beautiful artifacts ever found in Britain were discovered.
But while I like jewels and treasures, it is the dirt and bones that really intrigue me.
My first endeavor was a pencil sketch of the remains in burial Mound 17.
Among other things, there were caldrons, weapons, a comb, and the remains of a bridle. In another mound close by, his horse was interred, along with a bucket of oats.
My next sketch was of another, very different type of grave.
After the region had converted to Christianity, this sacred ground, populated with rich burial mounds for esteemed community leaders, was used as a place to execute convicted criminals. A gallows was erected on one of the mounds, and the site is littered with shallow graves of the disgraced and condemned.
It's sad, it's haunting and it's beautiful.
The last piece I produced is a pencil sketch of an idea I have brewing in the back of my brain. My impulse is to layer, somehow, images and inspirations from digs. I would like to create drawings of the finds, and layer them with schematic diagrams and maps, along with my imagined scenarios of the people and objects when they were alive and in use. I may need to learn a new medium, such as encaustic, to gain the effect I want.
This is a rough idea of what I might do. It is a composite image of things from the famous Mound 1. Below the sketch are images from the book that I have woven into the sketch.
Mound 1 was covering a large ship. Within the hull of the ship there was a wooden burial chamber, containing a coffin and body, and many stunningly valuable grave goods. It is one of the most famous archeological finds in history.
I'm really not sure where this is headed. It's very exciting and a little scary.
I will continue with my current series of art based on film noir until it feels right to commence on this new path.
Maybe I never will get to it, or maybe I will start next week.
I'm on vacation, and I'm having a wonderful time. It's a paradise. Beautiful room, white sand beach, gorgeous view.
And yet, I find myself having a difficult time relaxing entirely. I'm relaxing, but not completely relaxed. I find that I am suffering from a case of the "Shoulds".
Here are a list of my "Shoulds":
- I really need to take advantage of my time here!
- I should make a drawing or painting everyday.
- I should keep posting and staying engaged on social media.
- I should NOT post, and disengage completely.
- I should go I to a deep state of contemplation so I can start developing concepts and imagery for my next body of work.
- I should start collecting words and images for my next body of work.
- I should do paintings of the coastline so I can include coastal scenes in my next body of work.
- Furthermore, I should barely eat anything, so I will still feel okay in my bathing suit.
- I should drink less/more.
- I should swim in the ocean.
- I should go for a hike/sample authentic local cuisine/learn to paddleboard...
Get the idea? So much to ponder and worry about.
I heard a while back that the word "should" can be very toxic. It is a good exercise to replace it with the word "want" and see what happens.
Actually, I have done a number of my "Shoulds", because they seemed like fun at the time.
But what have I done mostly?
Mostly, I have gone on a deep dive into some really nerdy books on archeology.
Yes, archeology is my way to relax.
- I have two magazine subscriptions (World Archeology and The American Institute of Archeology Magazine).
- I am a fan of Patrick Wyman's podcast, Tides of History
- I watch archeology themed shows on TV and YouTube incessantly. (My favorite, which is not exactly about archeology, is Mysteries of the Abandoned on Discovery)
So I'm on a geek-fest, learning about how the Proto-Indo-European language, a theoretical language that became extinct around 2500 BCE, was the root from which most of the languages spoken in the world today evolved from.
What can I say? It's what I want to do.
A bibliography of my vacation:
Three Stones Make a Wall, by Eric H. Cline
The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, by David W. Anthony
Tales of Valhalla, by Martin and Hannah Whittock
Beowulf, translation by Seamus Heaney
The Dig, by John Preston
My husband and I took a trip to a place I've wanted to go for a long time- Greece! We visited mainly Napflio and the Peloponnes Peninsula, the island of Hydra, up to Delphi, then Athens.
Some of you may remember that I love ancient history, and that I did a series of art based on The Odyssey. It was sensational to be in and around the place where The Iliad and The Odyssey was conceived, sung, shared, and eventually written down. In fact, we visited the ancient site of Mycenae, which was the palace complex where Agamemnon himself lived and ruled.
Being in Greece lent depth and richness to my understanding of The Odyssey. One experience I had was the realization that my conception of the space and atmosphere was generalized and lacking in sensitivity. It was fanciful, but vague.
Take a Closer Look.
Here is an intimate, in depth glimpse into my thoughts, inspiration and artistic process.
Not seeing what you're looking for? My previous blog on blogspot can be found HERE.