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
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.
She glances out the back window at a waiting yellow taxi. Who is it that pursues her and why?
This is a piece that went through many changes. Originally I had multiple people in the street scene as if there where a bunch of people milling around. But as things developed I could see the figures were just a distraction from the real drama. I even considered taking out the figure near the door and just leaving the car- I still don’t know if I made the right choice. Don’t be surprised if you see another version of this one. (I often feel compelled to do certain images again and again.)
This one was just really fun. I loved working with the street light creating a cone of a lighter color. The back window of her vehicle creates a frame within a frame, and the dark color flows into her silhouetted profile and the buildings on the street. I tried to make a contrast with the bright yellow, the cool watercolor blues, and the flat dark brown/black.
Keep your eye open for a woodcut version of this piece!
In conversation about classic film noir, a common subject is that actors and actresses of color were relegated into narrow stereotyped roles, often as domestic servants of white protagonists. But of course, this didn’t just happen in the movies, it happened in real life, too. African Americans had limited opportunities and were often employed as domestics in white households. What individuality was denied or hidden?
And... who knows what she may know about her employers…?
It came from Out of the Past- from 1947, to be exact. This scene from the famous film noir inspired images in my head that I couldn't shake.
So, in April 2021, I took a video of myself in costume walking down the stairs. Then I created a large drawing from that video. From that I developed a painting... But, like many worthwhile endeavors in life, there were twists, turns, and backtracks along the way.
I love working off of colored, textured grounds. So, in early May, I got off to an interesting start by using purple watercolor and allowing it to drip down the panel.
I sized the image of the drawing in photoshop, printed it out on sheets of paper, and transferred a light image of it onto a panel. Then, using the drawing and the photographs as a reference, I started the painting.
I spent a bunch of time creating a wood grain effect on the stairs, thinking the reddish tone would enhance my purple shadows.
I also "closed up" the space, by making sure all walls, stairs and shadows were touching each other, enclosing the figure in with no way to "escape".
This all happened from early May to late June. I set Exit aside. I worked on other projects, such as The Hanged Man and Watch.
There may have been a beach trip or two as well...
All the while, I kept looking at Exit out of the corner of my eye... June ended... July ran its course...
I kept thinking... this could be better.
It doesn't have the glossy dark depth I had envisioned...
It needs... blue.
Here I am, paintbrush in mouth, glazing a layer of Prussian blue over my painting.
I also repainted the exit sign and made it larger.
I changed her shoes from black to white.
I even painted over the precious wood grain stairs I had worked so hard on.
Then, after all this, I realized the exit sign was no longer needed. In fact, it had become a distraction. Now that I had all my moody blues creating atmosphere, I wanted the woman to be the focus, as if a spotlight were shining on her. So, using a razor blade, I scratched it out.
With a tiny scrap of red paper and a bit of tape, I was able to see where to put my lovely vintage exit sign.
As I write this, the exit sign has been redone for a FORTH time-
Finally, finally, I believe it is done. It started in May, and ran off and on until September.
We live in a world of expediency, instant gratification and digital wizardry. But along the way, there has been a growing appreciation of the slow. For example, slow foods, artisanal cheese, vintage wine, and hand-made crafts are all important social and financial movements.
By sharing the process of my art, I hope to celebrate the slow and deliberate. Just like life, many artistic pursuits take a long and winding road. Part of what makes art, art, is that the artist takes the time to follow that road wherever it leads.
But those of you who have followed my art for a while know that it wasn’t always that way.
For many years I did work in a very different style, based on vintage snapshots of ordinary people. This body of work evokes feelings of wistful nostalgia.
They are boldly drawn with thin layers of paint over visible wood grain. It was a popular and satisfying method that worked for me for years before I felt the need to evolve and change.
The website is organized into three pages under Portfolio. Each image on each page has a clear indication of where to inquire about the piece, and if you feel so moved, how to buy it.
visit www.lesliepetersonsapp.com to see all my work, current and otherwise!
Another way to explore this earlier style is to visit previous blogposts, especially the years 2013 and before. Look at the Archive section on the right side of this page to investigate.
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.