Category Archives: What I’m Making

Designs for Morrison, Roosevelt, Sampson join perSISTERS Poster Series

TELL your story — #FemalePowerProject honoring Toni Morrison
#FemalePowerProject — use PRIVILEGE to sow JUSTICE

Here are two new poster designs in the #FemalePowerProject Positive Protest Principles Posters series, also called the perSISTERS. Now I will tell you about them.

TELL your story

It is partly through telling our stories—claiming the language for our experience—that we find female power. The more we speak and read, the more it is possible to express, and the more individual, “particularized,” experience becomes the rich shared experience of all humans.

Design note:
In case you’re wondering about the wiggly-flower thing in the upper right, I was inspired by the striking flower pin Toni Morrison is wearing in the photo of her receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2012. Looking through my type ornaments, this one caught my eye. (It is part of the Poetica Typeface.) I think of it as an animated version of the flower pin Morrison is wearing. I placed it in the design over her open hand as if she is juggling a living story, throwing it into the air and into the world where it becomes an independent organism, providing a “context for our lives.”

Toni Morrison (born February 18, 1931) is an American novelist, editor, teacher, and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University. Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1988 for Beloved. Inspired by the true story of an enslaved African American woman, Margaret Garner, who had escaped slavery but was pursued by slave hunters. Facing a return to slavery, Garner killed her two-year-old daughter but was captured before she could kill herself. Morrison’s novel imagines the dead baby returning as a ghost, Beloved, to haunt her mother and family. It would be hard to overestimate the influence of this novel on literature and American cultural understanding. Beloved is the first of three novels about love and African American history, sometimes called the Beloved Trilogy. Morrison has said they are intended to be read together, explaining, “The conceptual connection is the search for the beloved – the part of the self that is you, and loves you, and is always there for you.” In 1993 Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her citation reads: Toni Morrison, “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” She was the first black woman of any nationality to win the prize. In her Nobel acceptance speech, Morrison talked about the power of storytelling. To make her point, she told a story. She spoke about a blind, old, black woman who is approached by a group of young people. They demand of her, “Is there no context for our lives? No song, no literature, no poem full of vitamins, no history connected to experience that you can pass along to help us start strong? … Think of our lives and tell us your particularized world. Make up a story.”

Adapted from the Wikipedia entry

use PRIVILEGE to sow JUSTICE

When doing research on Eleanor Roosevelt I found this photo of her that includes Edith Sampson. They worked together on the U.S. delegation to the United Nations when the organization was crafting the remarkable Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Everyone should read this document which has been translated into over 500 languages. Who is Edith Sampson? She was a complicated woman at a complicated time, and this is what I found out about Eleanor and Edith.

Design notes:
Blue was Roosevelt’s favorite color. The orchid icon (background design) was made by freepik.com from www.flaticon.com

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (October 11, 1884 – November 7, 1962) was an American politician, diplomat, and activist. She was the longest-serving First Lady of the United States, having held the post from March 1933 to April 1945 during her husband President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four terms in office, and served as United States Delegate to the United Nations General Assembly from 1945 to 1952. President Harry S. Truman later called her the “First Lady of the World” in tribute to her human rights achievements.

Roosevelt was a member of the prominent American Roosevelt and Livingston families and a niece of President Theodore Roosevelt. She married her fifth cousin once removed, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1905.

Eleanor and Franklin’s marriage was always complicated, and she resolved to seek fulfillment in a public life of her own. She persuaded Franklin to stay in politics after he was stricken with debilitating polio in 1921, which cost him the normal use of his legs, and Roosevelt began giving speeches and appearing at campaign events in his place. Following Franklin’s election as Governor of New York in 1928, and throughout the remainder of Franklin’s public career in government, Roosevelt regularly made public appearances on his behalf, and as First Lady while her husband served as President, she significantly reshaped and redefined the role of that office during her own tenure and beyond, for future First Ladies.

Though widely respected in her later years, Roosevelt was a controversial First Lady at the time for her outspokenness, particularly her stance on racial issues. She was the first presidential spouse to hold regular press conferences, write a daily newspaper column, write a monthly magazine column, host a weekly radio show, and speak at a national party convention. On a few occasions, she publicly disagreed with her husband’s policies. She launched an experimental community at Arthurdale, West Virginia, for the families of unemployed miners, later widely regarded as a failure. She advocated for expanded roles for women in the workplace, the civil rights of African Americans and Asian Americans, and the rights of World War II refugees.

Following her husband’s death in 1945, Roosevelt remained active in politics for the remaining 17 years of her life. She pressed the United States to join and support the United Nations and became its first delegate. She served as the first chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights, and oversaw the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Later she chaired the John F. Kennedy administration’s Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. By the time of her death, Roosevelt was regarded as “one of the most esteemed women in the world”; she was called “the object of almost universal respect” in her New York Times obituary.

Adapted from Wikipedia

Edith Spurlock Sampson (October 13, 1898 – October 8, 1979) was an American lawyer and judge, and the first Black U.S. delegate appointed to the United Nations.

Sampson came from a struggling family and left school at 14 to work. She eventually did finish high school and while she worked she studied at the New York School of Social Work. One of her instructors encouraged her to become an attorney. She worked as a social worker in the day and studied law at night. Sampson graduated from John Marshall Law School. In 1924 Sampson opened a law office on the South Side of Chicago, serving the local black community. From 1925 through 1942, she was associated with the Juvenile Court of Cook County and served as a probation officer. In 1927 Sampson became the first woman to earn a Master of Laws from Loyola University’s Graduate Law School. She also passed the Illinois State Bar exam that year. In 1934 Sampson became one of the first women to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1943, she became one of the first black members of the National Association of Women Lawyers. In 1947 she was appointed an Assistant State’s Attorney in Cook County. President Truman appointed Sampson as an alternate U.S. delegate to the United Nations in August 1950, making her the first African-American to officially represent the United States at the UN. She was reappointed to the UN in 1952, and served until 1953. During the Eisenhower Administration, she was a member of the U.S. Commission for UNESCO. In 1961 and 1962, she became the first black U.S. representative to NATO.

In 1949, Sampson was part of a non-government program that sent twenty-six prominent Americans on a world tour meeting leaders and citizens of foreign countries and participating in public political debates and radio broadcasts. Part of the reason she was able to participate is that, being a successful lawyer, she had the money to pay her own way. Sampson sought to counter the propaganda in the Soviet Union during the Cold War regarding the treatment of African Americans in the United States. This was controversial within the African American community and she was sometimes called an apologist for America’s injustices. Federal support for civil rights had to be a factor in a foreign policy that saw the cold war, at the time, as a war of ideas, and Edith Sampson was in the middle of this. It has been suggested that because she did not live in the American South and did not have connections there, she was not as aware of conditions there. She was a respected person at home and abroad and pressed for justice in the U.S.. She told an audience in Des Moines in 1950: “You have got to open these closed doors and end segregation if you are going to save yourselves. Communist agents have used the story of segregation as a propaganda weapon….It is bad enough, but the story they get abroad is worse than is actually true. If we had a real Fair Employment Practices Commission, it would mean more than having millions of dollars spent through the Marshall Plan. The people of the eastern and backward countries do not want gratuities; they want to be able to believe in you.” This was before the nonviolent protests spearheaded by Dr. King (with the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955) which pivoted the thinking of how to work for civil rights with the U.S. as a major character on the world stage.

Non-violent civil disobedience changed everything. “As a young preacher named Martin Luther King asserted amid the excitement of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, ‘If we were incarcerated behind the iron curtains of a communistic nation—we couldn’t do this. If we were trapped in the dungeon of a totalitarian regime—we couldn’t do this. But the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right….We are here because of our love for democracy, because of our deep-seated belief that democracy transformed from thin paper to thick action is the greatest form of government on earth.’”* Thus the protests were framed as an example of a vibrant American democracy, not as a symptom of its failure. Over time Sampson did become impatient with the slow pace of civil rights progress in the U.S.. In a speech to African American high school graduates in 1960, she said “We have convinced ourselves, because it seemed so necessary, that the battle against injustice could be won piece by piece through changes in law, through court appeals, through persistent but cautious pressures. We were mistaken. No—we were wrong. Ours was not the only way. It was not even the best way.” She stood “in admiration of those who…effectively used the new device of non-violence borrowed from Christ and Gandhi and brought to sharpened potency …by Martin Luther King.”* She concluded that, if it were possible for her to start over again, perhaps she would not make as many mistakes or miss as many opportunities, and that she may have had more courage to do things better. She still maintained that communicating person-to-person about American ideals and the lives of African Americans was better than any published propaganda.

In 1962 Sampson became the first black woman to be elected as a judge in the state of Illinois. By 1969 she had apparently regained her faith in working within the system, saying in a speech: “We learned that we could work within the establishment, the system, without necessarily knuckling under to it.”

She was a privileged woman and she worked for justice at a time, like now, when great inhuman forces seemed to be at work, and it was not entirely clear how to proceed.

From Wikipedia and *“The American Way: Edith Sampson, the NAACP, and African American Identity in the Cold War” by Helen Laville and Scott Lucas, published in Diplomatic History (1996) 20 (4): 565-590

PRESENCE: assembling the shards (Female Power Project)

Here are some process images of the piece I have in the EMULSION 2017 exhibition opening Friday, March 3 and closing March 16, 2017. I will be participating in an informal discussion on this piece on Thursday, March 9 sometime between 6:00 and 7:30pm. https://www.facebook.com/events/380502832306923/

The piece is a ladder holding 10 containers (re)constructed from shards of broken vessels, arranged on seven levels in three columns. Inspired by concepts found in the Jewish mystical tradition, the piece comes from the conviction that something fundamentally destructive has happened and a rebuilding must be undertaken. The shard vessels are strange and the original vessels—from which the shards came—are prosaic, kitschy, and often ugly. There is no pattern to follow to create the repair except for failed traditions and institutions, but still, something must be done. There is a pathetic absurdity to the objects and the enterprise; still, the stakes are high and humans must continue to be present and act in the world even when the presence of good is hidden.

Nice shadows! "PRESENCE: assembling the shards" in the PEPCO Edison Place Gallery at 702 8th Street NW, Washington DC
Nice shadows! “PRESENCE: assembling the shards” in the PEPCO Edison Place Gallery at 702 8th Street NW, Washington DC
Starting with thrift store knick knacks. In the Jewish tradition, creation was a "Shattering of the Vessels" when the originating power (in a "Big Bang") could not be contained, and the shards of these primal vessels were dropped into the world. For the purposes of this sculpture I imagine that any object in the world could be a shard of the primordial vessel, especially things which are separated from their original purpose.
Starting with thrift store knick knacks.
In the Jewish tradition, creation was a “Shattering of the Vessels” when the originating power (in a “Big Bang”) could not be contained, and the shards of these primal vessels were dropped into the world.
For the purposes of this sculpture I imagine that any object in the world could be a shard of the primordial vessel, especially things which are separated from their original purpose.
Starting with thrift store knick knacks. In the Jewish tradition, creation was a "Shattering of the Vessels" when the originating power (in a "Big Bang") could not be contained, and the shards of these primal vessels were dropped into the world. For the purposes of this sculpture I imagine that any object in the world could be a shard of the primordial vessel, especially things which are separated from their original purpose.
Shards. The vessels were simpler to destroy than to assemble. The shards, themselves polluted, are said to function as containers to protect the sparks of power scattered in the world. For more about “shards” in Kabbalah (Qliphoth) see this article.
Creating vessels from the shards. I combined shards from different vessels to make the new vessels.
Creating vessels from the shards. I combined shards from different vessels to make the new vessels.
Building in stages. I experimented with different adhesives. I didn't try to make them look perfect. I felt like the enterprise was pathetic. I matched up similar edges.
Building in stages. I experimented with different adhesives. I didn’t try to make them look perfect. I felt like the enterprise was pathetic. I matched up similar edges.
I scribed words into lead sheets scavenged from wine bottles. There is a long tradition, most evident in ancient Roman archeology, of magic words being written on lead sheets and thrown into wells and other contained spaces.
I scribed words into lead sheets scavenged from wine bottles.
There is a long tradition, most evident in ancient Roman archeology, of magic words being written on lead sheets and thrown into wells and other contained spaces.
There are ten aspects to the sparks hidden in the world, along with ten opposites that stand in tension with them. These aspects are represented by the words scribed into the lead and attached with a chain to their opposite inside the vessel, hanging inside and out in a similar way to how a label connects to a tea bag.
There are ten aspects to the sparks hidden in the world, along with ten opposites that stand in tension with them. These aspects are represented by the words scribed into the lead and attached with a chain to their opposite inside the vessel, hanging inside and out in a similar way to how a label connects to a tea bag.
The word for the good aspect (e.g. ‘Beauty”) is hidden inside the vessel and the evil opposite (“Blame”) is hanging on the outside to name the evil shard-vessel.
The word for the good aspect (e.g. ‘Beauty”) is hidden inside the vessel and the evil opposite (“Blame”) is hanging on the outside to name the evil shard-vessel.
The word for the good aspect (e.g. ‘Beauty”) is hidden inside the vessel and the evil opposite (“Blame”) is hanging on the outside to name the evil shard-vessel. In this way the good power in the world is shielded by the deformed vessels.
In this way the good power in the world is shielded by the deformed vessels.
The ten aspects are traditionally depicted aligned in three columns with seven levels, as they are in the sculpture. The aspects are called "sefirot" and their arrangement is called the tree of life.
The ten aspects are traditionally depicted aligned in three columns with seven levels, as they are in the sculpture. The aspects are called “sefirot” and their arrangement is called the tree of life.
In this sculpture I arranged the sefirot like this, from top to bottom. 1. Error (Division Based on False Knowledge) encloses UNITY 2. Confusion encloses WISDOM 3. Secrecy encloses UNDERSTANDING 4. (Greed and) Waste encloses ABUNDANCE 5. Domination encloses STRENGTH 6. Blame encloses BEAUTY 7. Hatred encloses LOVE 8. Failure encloses SPLENDOUR 9. Pollution encloses CLARITY 10. Fear encloses ACTION
In this sculpture I arranged the sefirot like this, from top to bottom.
1. Error (Division Based on False Knowledge) encloses UNITY
2. Confusion encloses WISDOM
3. Secrecy encloses UNDERSTANDING
4. (Greed and) Waste encloses ABUNDANCE
5. Domination encloses STRENGTH
6. Blame encloses BEAUTY
7. Hatred encloses LOVE
8. Failure encloses SPLENDOUR
9. Pollution encloses CLARITY
10. Fear encloses ACTION
I was struck by how the words describing the divine and its opposite relate to the ideas of the #resistance
I was struck by how the words describing the divine and its opposite relate to the ideas of the #resistance
In the Jewish tradition, humans are tasked with the project of "Repairing the World." This involves being present (“Here I Am,” says Abraham) with the holy presence of the sparks. The goal is to reunite the scattered sparks with the original power. The sparks are said to be the feminine aspect of the original, undifferentiated, power. This is how “Assembling the Shards” relates to the #FemalePowerProject.
In the Jewish tradition, humans are tasked with the project of “Repairing the World.” This involves, along with proper actions, a being-present (“Here I Am,” says Abraham) with the holy presence of the sparks. The goal is to reunite the scattered sparks with the original power. The sparks are said to be the feminine aspect of the original, undifferentiated, power. This is how “Assembling the Shards” relates to the #FemalePowerProject.
The viewer of the sculpture is prompted to mark her own presence by taking a pebble from the bucket and placing it on the ladder. This is a practice relating to another Jewish tradition of placing a pebble on the tombstone when visiting a grave.
The viewer of the sculpture is prompted to mark her own presence by taking a pebble from the bucket and placing it on the ladder. This is a practice relating to another Jewish tradition of placing a pebble on the tombstone when visiting a grave.
I assembled "Assembling" in the gallery last Wednesday. On March 9, sometime between 6:00pm and 7:30pm, I will give an informal 5 minute talk about this sculpture. I hope I don't sound like a crazy person. I am not a Jewish mystic. I am an artist.
I assembled “Assembling” in the gallery last Wednesday. On March 9, sometime between 6:00pm and 7:30pm, I will give an informal 5 minute talk about this sculpture. I hope I don’t sound like a crazy person. I am not a Jewish mystic. I am an atheist artist of Jewish ethnicity. (A distinction without a difference?)

 

 

PRESENCE: Honoring Ieshia Evans

PRESENCE: Honoring Ieshia Evans (Female Power Project)
PRESENCE: Honoring Ieshia Evans (Female Power Project)

Here is the most recent addition to the #FemalePowerProject, a multi-media triptych called PRESENCE: Honoring Ieshia Evans. This is one of two pieces with “PRESENCE” in its title. I will post about the other soon.

Now showing in the studio windows at Black Lab, you can view these works any time of the day or night (until I decide to take them down or show them somewhere else) at 716 Monroe Street NE, Studio 16, Washington, DC.

The three panels, based on a striking photograph by Jonathan Bachman, honor Ieshia Evans who was arrested in Baton Rouge on 7/10/16 protesting the murder of Alton Sterling. The writing on the pieces quotes parts of an interview with Ieshia Evans in which she describes her thoughts and feelings surrounding the event captured in the photograph. Her physical presence in the image holds immense power. I felt that this event and this person should be memorialized in some way since “viral” images have a tendency to be forgotten, their memory eroded by time and replaced by new viral images.

Multi-media assemblage and collage, triptych. The three images (below) show the left, middle, and right panels of the triptych. All pieces are collage, spray paint, painting, and drawing on museum board nailed to painted plywood with plaster decorative molding and writing in silver ink.

Left 18” x 24” x 2.5”
Text says: I’m a woman. I’m Here. I love my people.

Middle 18” x 24” x 1.5”
Text says: Ieshia Evans was arrested in Baton Rouge protesting the murder of Alton Sterling by police. “I’m human. I’m a woman. I’m a mom. I’m a nurse. I could be your nurse. I could be taking care of you. You know? I’m here. We all matter. We don’t have to beg to matter. We do matter … I never really considered myself to be in the definition of brave. But sometimes, jobs are given to you that you’re not really—you didn’t apply for. You know?” (Based on a photo by Jonathan Bachman)

Right 18” x 25.5” x 1.5”
Text says: 7/10/2016 – It is more than me, it is more than myself. So here I am, I have a responsibility to do something.

$750 each panel

Here they are in a gallery. Click to see a larger picture of each panel.

About the Female Power Project

The Female Power Project is a multi-media performance and series of physical expressions (shawls, scarves, pins, prints, multi-media wall pieces, assemblage sculpture, photographs, and—coming soon—assemblage boxes, a print publication, video…) I’ve created these objects and designs inspired by the power of women, both human and mythological. I’ve asked friends and strangers about their female heroes and deities. I’ve researched these females and tried to find the center point of their power or gift. I document this process here on this blog. In each piece I have tried not only to represent the person, but to represent the attributes and message—the power—of the person (or spirit) in words and/or in images. The females represented so far: The Virgin of Guadalupe; Malala Yousafzai; Harriet Tubman; Maya Angelou; Erzulie (the Haitian spirit of love); and Marie Curie. Coming up next: Frida Kahlo; Virginia Woolf; Aun Sang Suu Kyi; Rachel Carson; Nellie Bly; Simone DeBeauvoir; Rosie the Riveter; Ruth Bader Ginsburg…

Information on how to order pieces in the Female Power Project

You can order them directly from me! Just send me a message here to discuss your request (include your name, email, and the address you want me to ship to, as well as which pieces you would like to buy) and I will send you information and/or a Paypal invoice which will include the shipping cost (likely to be $5.00 for scarves and shawls and pins for U.S. destinations). I will ship when your payment goes through. If you are interested in purchasing a Female Power Pin ($48, some are $38) let me know and I will email you a picture of the ones I have in the studio right now. These are one-of-a-kind, so there’s no other way of telling what designs I will have when you want to get one.

ERZULIE joins the Female Power Project

ERZULIE shawl design
ERZULIE shawl design

When I was asking friends which females they were inspired by, one told me that the Haitian goddess, Erzulie, had stayed with her ever since she had taken a class on the people of the Caribbean. A quick Wikipedia search showed me enough to capture my attention. There are so many Erzulies! Erzulie, or “Ezili,” is most generally referred to as the goddess (or Lwa—spirit, or angel) of love. But the Haitian religion, called Vodou, seems to revel in distinctions and specificity, and develops new spirits as the culture demands, adapting to changing social conditions. Thus the proliferation of Erzulies. My main source for information about this belief system is the work of anthropologist, Karen McCarthy Brown. In the early seventies she did field work for her dissertation in Haiti. This unpublished work pioneers a structuralist approach to the visual arts, specifically examining the rich ritual meanings of the Vèvè, or ephemeral drawings made in corn flour on the floor at the beginning of a Vodou ritual.

Two Veve representing the two main Erzulies, Erzulie Dantor and Erzulie Freda, from THE VEVE OF HAITIAN VODOU: A STRUCTURAL ANALYSIS OF VISUAL IMAGERY, by Karen McCarthy Brown, 1975.
Two Veve representing the two main Erzulies, Erzulie Dantor and Erzulie Freda, from THE VEVE OF HAITIAN VODOU: A STRUCTURAL ANALYSIS OF VISUAL IMAGERY, by Karen McCarthy Brown, 1975.

 

Structuralism, a mode of anthropological explanation first developed by Claude Levi-Strauss in the 1950s, describes cultural production as a play of opposites: raw and cooked; male and female; clean and unclean etc. The Vèvè, and by extension Vodou, seem perfectly suited to this mode, since there is an explicit oppositional geometry to its fundamental powers of soft and hard spirits—or Rada and Petwo. The Rada spirits, like Erzulie Freda, are associated with the right side, the inside, with the below, with water; they are cool and intimate and familial, stable, predictable. They map almost perfectly to the deities that the stolen African peoples brought with them (across the water) to Haiti. The Petwo spirits, like Erzulie Dantor, are associated with the left side, with the upward direction, the outside, with fire and power and war and destruction, with energy, they are unpredictable and unforgiving and harsh. When devotees are possessed by Petwo spirits (the spirits ride the worshipers like horses) they wield whips and blow whistles. It may be too simplistic to reduce Petwo spirits to representations of power under the conditions of slavery, but there is definitely a connection.

That is not all. The Vodou religion is a mashup of African religions and Catholicism as practiced by the French slaveholders and Polish mercenary soldiers who enforced the slaveholders’ power. There are many aspects to the Virgin Mary and they are connected to the many aspects to Erzulie. Erzulie Dantor (a Petwo Lwa) is associated with the Black Madonna (there are hundreds of these in Europe) and specifically the Black Madonna of Częstochowa. Dantor is a single mother and her child is called Anais. She is a fiercely strong protector of women and children. Erzulie Freda (a Rada Lwa) is associated with Our Lady of Sorrows, even though Freda is NOT a mother, she weeps a lot and showers people with affection. In possession rituals, Erzulie Freda starts out showering love on people and ends up weeping with grief and loss—because she has no child and she has no husband—she is overflowing with love but there is no stable object of this love.

But I was not as interested in Freda, I wanted to find a more direct counterpart to Erzulie Dantor, the fierce mother. In my research I did find mention of a Rada Erzulie mother, Erzulie Mansur, but only on Wikipedia, and I could find no other mention of her, neither could I find a Vèvè about her. But new Lwa are always being invented, or found, and in my ERZULIE design I wanted to process the soft and hard aspects of maternal love. I use the generic name, Erzulie, and not specific names, because I want to get to the base of the matter: the dialectic of Maternal Love, a fitting topic for the Female Power Project.

The Vèvè, as described by Brown, are a microcosm of the open-ended and adaptive system we find in Vodou. They display up and down and left and right, like the Cartesian coordinates of the Vodou religion, and each Vèvè has telling signs in particular locations in the drawing referring to its particular Lwa. But they are not dogmatic, and each priest or priestess has their own version of these drawings. A Petwo spirit, Erzulie Dantor’s Vèvè (above) always shows a sword—she is fierce, you don’t MESS with her. As you can imagine, a Rada Erzulie would be more “feminine,” and make references to lace and flowers and pretty things. Since all Erzulies are about love, their Vèvè all have a heart at the center.

What do the Vèvè actually do, what are they for? They are the doorways that allow the Lwa to enter the ritual space and ride their horses (possess their worshipers). Although the Vèvè were an obvious source for imagery in my Erzulie designs, I didn’t actually want to open a door to the spiritual world where the Lwa dwell. I wanted to do everything the Vèvè do except for letting actual spirits into the world, especially outside of the proper ritual setting. You know, just in case!

Here is a quote from Karen McCarthy Brown where she gets at what visual art can do both inside and outside of a religious context: “The experiential data the Vèvè refer to have not lost ambiguity or emotive content and, as a result, the right image in the right context is capable of provoking a seemingly endless stream of meaningful associations.” There is an undetermined openness to powerful images that allows the viewer to enter into the experience in an active way, to lend meaning to the work of art, in a dialogue with the visual object. Some people really are seized by a work of art, and in the proper situation their minds are possessed by a rush of spiraling associations.

Scarf design
Scarf design

This leads me to the point that art and ritual may have very similar functions: to mediate—to open up doors between—these structural opposites that our minds and societies lay down like laws. In Vodou spirit possession the spirit world and the human world interact; male humans can be ridden by female Lwa and take on their characteristics—and women can be possessed by male spirits; ritual spraying of alcoholic drink mediates fire and water. But there is one kind of opposite that has to be kept mostly separate and that is the two kinds of Lwa, Rada and Petwo. However, the separation is symbolic, not absolute. Their rituals are held at different times but they are performed in the same space. Their altars are in separate rooms, but Rada and Petwo do play out in the same system. Perhaps the pain and grief of the diaspora is so profound that the before power and the after power are like matter and antimatter: if they get close they are a creative social engine, but if they touch they will annihilate everyone in the room. In this way historic pain can be creative OR destructive, and, I think, they are most often both.

This is on a much larger scale than what I am trying to get at in my ERZULIE pieces. In this work I am saying that motherhood is something like that. There is a part of motherhood when softness and giving and encompassing are the most appropriate and good, and there is another part when hardness and cutting and fierceness are called for. There is pulling and there is pushing; there is an overflowing wealth but also separation and loss. The power comes from the dynamic discord of these opposing poles, and it is almost impossible to get it just right, but that is one of the most basic forces for humans, this gentleness (and oneness and nurturing) and fierceness (and anger and separation) wrapped up with motherhood. You must always, especially, avoid the bear with cubs. To birth the world there was, and had to be, a breaking of the vessels.

Now, on to the design. Let’s start at the center. That is also where the Vodou ritual starts, at the poteau-mitan, or the center pole in the Vodou temple. This is an instance of the sacred tree we see in many religions. It is the way that the Lwa get from their world (below) to ours. The center vertical line in a Vèvè makes direct reference to this center pole. In my ERZULIE designs the center tree graphic is the only direct reference to Vèvè. The leaf shape is used in Vèvè to refer to “leaf magic,” or medicinal herbal lore, a gift from the Lwa and a special power that comes from the same tree that brings the Lwa to our world. In my designs I am also making reference to the human spine, which is another vertical center line that partakes of the tree of life. The people who wear the shawl or scarf will align the printed leaf tree with their own spines.

Working out from this tree/spine you can read the word “ERZULIE” twice on the shawl, six times on the scarf, both forward and in reverse. When I did this I was thinking of how the Vodouisant (a practitioner of Vodou) says that the Lwa come from the other side of the mirror or from the other side of the water. The shawl can be read from both sides since it is translucent. So it reminds us of how it is to look from the other side—a reference to the experience of the worshiper possessed by her Lwa.

Photographing fire.
Photographing fire.
Photographing Caribbean water in the Virgin Islands
Photographing Caribbean water in the Virgin Islands.

Working out from the words we see on the left (Petwo) side hot colors and flames, and on the right (Rada) side there is cool pink water. They transition into each other, these two forces, but are still held safely apart by the spinal leaf tree. And over these basic elements we see the hearts, at the heart of every Erzulie Vèvè. On the right is a flower called “Bleeding Heart,” or Lamprocapnos spectabilis. Here is a picture of this plant, also commonly called Dicentra spectabilis. The softer, Rada, Erzulie loves flowers. The bleeding heart is a central devotion in Catholicism and is associated with the Rada Erzulie Freda. On top of the flower is a watery heart.

Bleeding Heart, or Lamprocapnos spectabilis.
Bleeding Heart, or Lamprocapnos spectabilis.
Catholic bleeding heart—on lace!
Catholic bleeding heart—on lace!

On the left, over the fire, is a lace heart overlaid with a pair of scissors. Instead of looking for the right sword to photograph, I realized that scissors make much more sense (for me), AND they are heart shaped. Scissors are for cutting and for making. They are like a woman’s sword.

Both sides end in lace, a beautiful web traditionally made by women’s hands. The web is the tissue of the social world that ritual knots together. It is the “seemingly endless stream of meaningful associations” that art can lend us, if we are lucky.

Blue, if you were wondering about the blue, is Erzulie’s favorite color.

 

 

Further FEARLESS Adventures in the Female Power Project

"Fearless" shawl honoring Harriet Tubman
“Fearless” shawl honoring Harriet Tubman

Now I will write about the development of the “Fearless” designs honoring Harriet Tubman. When I was surveying people about their heroes, Harriet Tubman came up many times. I didn’t know much about her. Like many famous people I have researched, a library search comes up with more books targeted to a juvenile audience than to an adult one. So one afternoon I was picking up my kid at the library after school and I had grabbed a few books about Tubman. My kid said, “Oh, don’t do something about her, every year someone does a report on Harriet Tubman, I am so tired of her!” So my kid knew more about Harriet than I did, but maybe not enough.

There are some things about Harriet that I can imagine show up in every “Black History Month” oral report: 1.) Born a slave in Maryland in 1822. 2.) At 12 years old was hit in the head, nearly died, and suffered the effects for the rest of her life (heard  voices and had sleeping spells). 3.) She was an entrepreneur. Her owner allowed her to hire herself out and keep some of the proceeds. She invested in some horses to help with her jobs. 4.) She was extremely physically strong, as strong or stronger than most men. 5.) She was soaked in the Christian faith and believed she spoke directly with God. 6.) In 1849, after one failed attempt with her brothers (who were too afraid and gave up), she succeeds in emancipating herself by escaping to Pennsylvania. 7.) Between 1850 and 1860, she comes back to Maryland about 10 times to help her family and friends escape slavery. She helps free about 70 people this way and became a famous conductor on the Underground Railway, never losing a passenger. Many escapes are quite dramatic, showing her intelligence, dedication, and fearlessness. 8.) 1862–1865: during the American Civil War Tubman works for the Union forces, including as a scout and a spy. She also develops programs to help emancipated slaves figure out how to make a living. In 1863 she becomes the first woman to lead an armed raid for the U.S. Among other things, she helps free over 700 slaves from Confederate territory. She is never paid for this service, neither does she receive a pension for this work. 9.) After the war she works as a public speaker and a women’s suffrage supporter. 10.) She works to establish a home for elderly and poor African Americans in Auburn, New York. She dies there in 1913.

So, those are the basics. That’s the oral report. Now where’s the art? I was in the middle of “Bride of Hurricanes” when I dropped everything to go to “Tubman Days” on the Eastern Shore. How lucky for me that Harriet was from Dorchester County Maryland, only a couple hours from my studio! How lucky for me that the Maryland Park Service and the National Park Service both have Harriet Tubman Parks, together with the Underground Railroad National Byway, and that on March 10 (Tubman Day!) there was to be a symposium with leading scholars and historians about Harriet and the meaning of freedom, along with presentations, seminars, and tours over several days. I did the Tubman driving tour whilst listening to the Tubman app! I met her most recent biographer, whose (non-juvenile!) book I subsequently read. But the art, I found that in the marshy landscape of the Blackwater Preserve, which has changed little since Harriet was six and hired out to a farmer who set her to work checking muskrat traps, in winter, while she was sick with the measles. (I felt like a Harriet groupie, going from one “point of interest” to another.) There was art, also, in Harriet’s words.

Blackwater Preserve, Dorchester County, Maryland
Blackwater Preserve, Dorchester County, Maryland

Here I would like to pursue a tangent about muskrat. After I had heard the story about the muskrat traps and six-year-old sick Araminta (she changed her name to Harriet later), after I left the Blackwater Preserve, I was thinking, “I wonder what the muskrat were for—to eat? Do they still use muskrat?” Driving into Cambridge I saw a sign in front of a store, “Local Fresh Muskrat.” I did not go in. Should I have gone in? I had oysters for lunch instead. And then later that day I visited the museum in Dover, Delaware, where, in a vitrine, I saw a stuffed muskrat and the answer to my question. “Muskrats, or marsh rabbits, have been trapped for many decades. ‘Ratting’ is the farmer-waterman’s job. At one time, their pelts were sold for fur clothing and meat was served in most homes and restaurants.”

Local Fresh Muskrat for Sale
Local Fresh Muskrat for Sale
Stuffed Muskrat
Stuffed Muskrat
My questions answered
My questions answered

 

 

 

 

 

 

Imagery

Her knowledge of the landscape of the Eastern Shore was essential to Harriet’s success as a conductor. She had to navigate the waterways and woods at night. She had to travel in the winter months when the nights were longest. This land was in her flesh; her flesh was of this land. Knowledge of the underground railroad traveled along the waterways which were populated by strong communities of freed black watermen. Harriet would have had access to these people while she hired herself out. I photographed the marsh grasses from below, as if I were hiding in them. I photographed the water, something I have been doing in many places for years. On the other side of the water: a marshy shore.

Another image I used was a printer’s dingbat from the time showing a woman slave escaping, a satchel in her hand. These were used again and again for runaway slave notices in the newspaper. I also used the printed notice of “Minty’s” (Araminta’s) first unsuccessful escape with her brothers in 1849.

mintybenharryad-adjRunaway-Slave-2Note that in the advert, Minty is described as “fine looking.” Harriet was a good looking young woman. And small.

These are the words I have chosen to print on these pieces: “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person.” This is how Harriet describes what she did when she emancipated herself. She had to look at herself to see that she was the same person, only that now that she was in a free state, there had been a qualitative change. Her body belonged to herself. Those were HER hands now, not her owner’s. One’s hands are the easiest part of one’s own body to see, but they also represent any work that you do, your action upon the world. That action was now hers to govern. The fruits of her actions were to be her wealth now. Here is the whole quote as written in Sarah Bradford’s 1869 biography: “When I found I had crossed that line I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything, the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.” This moment of looking at light through the trees (it must have been dawn) I have tried to capture in the depiction of hands on these pieces.

The largest word on the scarf and shawl is “FEARLESS.” I have been thinking about Harriet’s fearlessness. It was described by her “passengers” as a single-minded (almost uncanny) and fierce dedication to achieving escape. She threatened to shoot those who gave up along the way, because they would be a threat to the success of the other passengers. I have a hypothesis that this fearlessness, which should not be confused with recklessness—she was very cautious and understood danger—this fearlessness might have come about as a result of her head injury. She just was not afraid. Danger would not stop her. She would be free, and she would free her family too, because, “There was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land. But I was free, and they [her family] should be free.” God spoke to her, told her what to do, and she was not afraid. This may be the central attribute of Sister Harriet. It is no less admirable if it came about by a physical accident. Through her fearlessness she took possession of her own body, her own self. Wear that.

"Fearless" scarf honoring Harriet Tubman
“Fearless” scarf honoring Harriet Tubman

Epilogue

When Minty was lying on the bed of the loom, her blood crusted on her crazy unkempt hair, and she was still not dying, her owner brought by one potential buyer after another. One man looked at her and said, “She ain’t worth sixpence!” And now, as everyone knows, Harriet Tubman’s visage will soon appear on the American twenty dollar bill. The following depiction is a perfectly appropriate interpretation of Harriet Tubman, born Araminta Ross.

tubman-20

My Beeswax

Work in progress: Bone Clock (working title). Beeswax: I’m thinking about how this material is of all three categories I’ve been massaging/messaging—animal, plant, and made by humans. (See Pseudomorphs and Celestial Bodies.) The bees make the wax from glands in their bodies; the yellow coloring comes from pollen; and it is cultivated, gathered, and purified by humans. It smells amazing.

Melting beeswax: circle image!
Melting beeswax: circle image!
Wax setting in the Bone Clock
Wax setting in the Bone Clock