I recently returned from a week’s trip back West. I am from New Mexico, and the landscape of the Southwestern United States is my ur-landscape—the space underlying all my experiences of space. These landscapes bellow out the slow drama of large and mighty processes: uplift; slipping; erosion. In the East, where I live now, the landscape is more about the faster but still inexorable forces exerted by humans on the land. The heavy cover of vegetation around here hides the slow earth energy buried in rocks. In my new works I am using the objects I have worked with for years: plant objects; animal objects; human objects. Now I am making landscapes with them. Landscape is the theater of vast forces and we move across the stage as participants and watchers. The artist is the kind of watcher who gathers and transforms the symbols of vast processes—the props and the costumes—and creates productions that participate with the landscape—allowing it to become self-similar—because the landscape absorbs all of this into itself like a vast, slow, ornamented wheel.
Like most of my work, this new piece will likely be part of a series. Please click on the image and enlarge on a desktop monitor, scroll to the left, so you can see what I am trying to get at here. As a landscape it can be seen as a whole, but it can also be experienced as a series of cropped views. I was inspired by a task suggested to me by a musician who was interested in my Celestial Bodies. He was looking for album art for his heavily layered and textured electronic music and he saw a similarity between our works. Since I am also a graphic designer, I knew I should first see what kind of format album art is in online nowadays. I discovered that it needs to work very small (phone screen) or it could be larger (print or large screen) and also appears in different proportions, square in some places and elsewhere rectangular. It seemed a daunting task to make something that flexible from my work’s highly detailed images. I knew a Celestial Body would not be readable at postage-stamp size! Then I was listening to his music in Spotify and noticed the sound histogram, or whatever it is called, and it looked like a landscape to me, a landscape through time. And that made me think about how we move through a landscape and capture bits of it as we pass through. So I thought I would make a layered and complex space using objects and I could crop different parts for different uses. During April I took a trip with my family and we drove quite a bit in Colorado and Utah. I am still digesting my experience of landscape from that time, in that place, and it is informing these landscapes of objects I am making here, in this time. I hope to get on the road again soon! Meanwhile, visit my Instagram @LedaBlackArtist to see my posts as I process that trip and trips to come.
I’m now calling these #FemalePowerProject Positive Protest Principles Posters. With these three, the total number of designs will be ten. (Click here to see the first seven designs.) They are: DISSENT honoring Ruth Bader Ginsburg; be marvelous TOGETHER honoring Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton; and FIGHT honoring Hillary Clinton. Two sizes are available for sale and the digital versions can be downloaded here for free (be marvelous TOGETHER is designed for larger sizes). 11 x 14 inch prints are $30 and 16 x 20 inch prints are $45. I can send them in the mail for flat rate $5 or you can purchase them at my retail studio, Black Lab, at 716 Monroe Street NE, Studio 16, Washington, DC 20017. Read below the thumbnails for some text describing these characters.
Click on the blurry thumbnail image to see a higher resolution version!
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
(born Joan Ruth Bader; March 15, 1933) is an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Ginsburg was appointed by President Bill Clinton and took the oath of office on August 10, 1993. She is the second female justice to be confirmed to the Court (after Sandra Day O’Connor) and one of four female justices to be confirmed (with Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, who are still serving). Following Justice O’Connor’s retirement and prior to Justice Sotomayor joining the Court, Ginsburg was the only female justice on the Supreme Court. During that time, Ginsburg became more forceful with her dissents, noted by legal observers and in popular culture.
Ginsburg spent a considerable portion of her legal career as an advocate for the advancement of gender equality and women’s rights, winning multiple victories arguing before the Supreme Court. She advocated as a volunteer lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union and was a member of its board of directors and one of its general counsels in the 1970s. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit where she served until her elevation to the Supreme Court.
Ginsburg has been referred to as a “pop culture icon”. Ginsburg’s profile began to rise after Justice O’Connor’s retirement in 2005 left Ginsburg as the only serving female justice. Ginsburg’s increasingly fiery dissents, particularly in Shelby County v. Holder, led to the creation of the Notorious R.B.G. Tumblr and meme comparing the justice to rapper The Notorious B.I.G. The creator of the Notorious R.B.G Tumblr, then-law student Shana Knizhnik, teamed up with MSNBC reporter Irin Carmon to turn the blog into a book titled Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Released in October 2015, the book became New York Times bestseller. Ginsburg herself admitted to having a “large supply” of Notorious R.B.G T-shirts which she distributed as gifts. Her family and close friends claim that Ginsburg herself does not have a “pop culture” personality and find the whole thing bemusing.
Mostly from Wikipedia
About the Dissent Jabot
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg has a fabulous jabot, or decorative collar, collection to wear with her black robe. During an extensive interview with Yahoo News’ Katie Couric, Ginsburg showed off her assortment of collars. She has a “dissenting collar,” which she explained to Couric “looks fitting for dissents.” She also has a collar for when she writes the majority opinion, which was a gift from her law clerks. Ginsburg was seen wearing her dissent collar on November 9, 2016.
Partly based on http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/ruth-bader-ginsburg-dissenting-collar
Hillary Rodham Clinton
I based this design on classic boxing posters. If you don’t know who she is, look her up!
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony “worked marvelously together”
Stanton and Anthony are “foremothers” of the struggle for women’s equality. In 1851, Stanton started working with Susan B. Anthony, a well-known abolitionist. The two women made a great team. Anthony managed the business affairs of the women’s rights movement while Stanton did most of the writing. Together they edited and published a woman’s newspaper, the Revolution, from 1868 to 1870. In 1869, Anthony and Stanton formed the National Woman Suffrage Association. They traveled all over the country and abroad, promoting woman’s rights.
Anna Howard Shaw, another suffragist, wrote a description of the relationship between Stanton and Anthony in The Story of a Pioneer: “She [Miss Anthony] often said that Mrs. Stanton was the brains of the new association, while she herself was merely its hands and feet; but in truth the two women worked marvelously together, for Mrs. Stanton was a master of words and could write and speak to perfection of the things Susan B. Anthony saw and felt but could not herself express.”
From: http://www.americaslibrary.gov/aa/stanton/aa_stanton_friends_1.html HISTORY
In 1851, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton embarked on a collaboration that evolved into one of the most productive working partnerships in U.S. history. As uncompromising women’s rights leaders, they revolutionized the political and social condition of women in American society. Stanton was the leading voice and philosopher of the women’s rights and suffrage movements while Anthony was the powerhouse who commandeered the legions of women who struggled to win the ballot for American women.
During the early 1850s, Anthony also longed for involvement in the abolitionist and women’s rights movements. In the months following her first meeting with Stanton in March 1851, the two women not only developed a deep friendship but also helped each other prepare themselves to change women’s lives. Anthony thrived under Stanton’s tutelage—soaking up her knowledge of politics, the law, philosophy, and rhetoric. Stanton, confined to her home by motherhood (she gave birth to her seventh and last child in 1859), was stimulated by Anthony’s thoughtful critiques of her ideas. Anthony became the propulsive force behind all their activism. She did not permit Stanton to be idle, always pushing her to write one more speech, one more manifesto.
As would become customary, Anthony, who was unmarried and free of family demands, organized and ran the campaign. She traveled statewide, speaking throughout 54 New York counties. Stanton did the legal research, drafted the literature Anthony distributed, and wrote the speeches for them both. Finally, in 1860, following Stanton’s eloquent speech before the New York state legislature, the Married Women’s Property Law of 1860 became law. Married women gained the right to own property, engage in business, manage their wages and other income, sue and be sued, and be joint guardian of their children.
In 1856, the American Anti-Slavery Society hired Anthony to be its general agent in the state of New York. Until 1861, she and her troupe of antislavery orators (including Stanton) crisscrossed the state, confronting hostile mobs wherever they spoke.
In May 1869, Anthony and Stanton formed the National Woman Suffrage Association, a woman-led organization devoted to obtaining a federal woman suffrage amendment.
From 1868-1870 Anthony and Stanton published the radical women’s rights newspaper The Revolution. Stanton was the principal writer and editor, Anthony the publisher and business manager. Although the paper was a financial failure, it provided a much-needed forum for Stanton and Anthony to broadcast their views to their allies and the public.
During the early 1870s, Anthony and Stanton pursued a strategy that they believed would enfranchise women. The “New Departure” was founded on the premise that the 14th and 15th Amendments guaranteed all citizens the right to vote regardless of gender. Anthony and at least 150 other women tested its constitutionality by casting ballots in the 1872 presidential election. Several weeks later, Anthony was arrested. She was indicted by a grand jury in January 1873 and in June went on trial in Canandaigua, New York. The judge ordered the all-male jury to render a guilty verdict. In her comments to the court, Anthony exposed the trial for the travesty it was. (See excerpt from comments below)
Anthony and Stanton abandoned the New Departure in 1875 when the Supreme Court delivered the Minor v. Happersett verdict. Anthony then focused NWSA suffragists on the campaign for a woman suffrage amendment. In 1878, Stanton wrote and submitted NWSA’s proposed amendment to the U.S. Senate. For the next 40 years, it would be brought before each session of Congress.
In 1891, Anthony made a home with her sister Mary at the family household in Rochester, New York. She hoped that Stanton would come live with them, but her old friend declined, deciding to live with two of her children in New York City. In the 1890s, Stanton was writing to her heart’s content—submitting articles and essays to leading national newspapers and magazines. Her celebrity was at its peak.
In 1895, Stanton published the first volume of the Woman’s Bible, the culmination of her life-long interest in correcting biblical passages that are demeaning to women. It became an immediate bestseller and aroused widespread controversy. Within NAWSA, it ignited a firestorm. Despite Anthony’s protests, the conservative leadership rejected Stanton’s book and voted to censure her.
Two weeks before her 87th birthday, Stanton died of heart failure on October 26, 1902. Anthony was inconsolable. “I am too crushed to speak,” she told a reporter. Anthony’s health was failing, too. In 1900, at age 80, she had suffered a stroke. Though her doctor had warned her to take better care of herself, she decided it would be better to “die in the harness” than to abandon her work. She was no longer president of NAWSA but still supervised most of its management.
In February 1906, the 86-year-old Anthony, ill and weary, delivered her final speech at the annual NAWSA convention in Baltimore. She reminded NAWSA suffragists that the day of women’s enfranchisement was at hand—that “Failure is Impossible.” Weeks later, Anthony succumbed to double pneumonia and heart failure. She died on March 13th. Fourteen more years of ceaseless agitation would be necessary before the 19th Amendment enfranchised women on August 26, 1920.
About the Author: Judith E. Harper, author of Susan B. Anthony: A Biographical Companion (ABC-CLIO, 1998). A graduate of Wellesley College and Boston University, Judith E. Harper specializes in the history of nineteenth-century American women. She is the author of Susan B. Anthony: A Biographical Companion (ABC-CLIO, 1998). She is currently writing The Encyclopedia of Women During the American Civil War. She lives in the Boston area.
Susan B. Anthony, from comments to the Court, 19 June 1873:
“I shall not sit down. I will not lose my only chance to speak.”
Court—”You have been tried, Miss Anthony, by the forms of law, and my decision has been rendered by law.”
Miss Anthony—”Yes, but laws made by men, under a government of men, interpreted by men and for the benefit of men. The only chance women have for justice in this country is to violate the law, as I have done, and as I shall continue to do,” and she struck her hand heavily on the table in emphasis of what she said. “Does your honor suppose that we obeyed the infamous fugitive slave law which forbade to give a cup of cold water to a slave fleeing from his master? I tell you we did not obey it; we fed him and clothed him, and sent him on his way to Canada. So shall we trample all unjust laws under foot. I do not ask the clemency of the court. I came into it to get justice, having failed in this, I demand the full rigors of the law.”
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.
I’ve made this series within a series, I suppose within TWO series. Isn’t everything connected anyway? After the devastating slap of the election, the Women’s March was a tonic. With so many people who came from all over—and the sister marches around the world—it is clear that progressive action is becoming more potent than ever. And it is fired by female power. Like I’ve been saying. There are many more protest graphics free for download at WokeGraphics.com. These Female Power Project Positive Protest Principles Posters are available at Black Lab Art Studio in 16 x 20 inch ($45) and 11 x 14 inch ($30) sizes. You can also order these printed on canvas and stretched on a frame AND SHIPPED TO YOU for $70 (11×16) or $100 (16×20). These stretched canvas versions are ready to hang on your wall, no framing necessary. Contact me if you would like me to ship and I’ll send you an invoice. Wouldn’t one of these make a great gift for a “Nasty Woman” in your life?
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.
Marie Curie, born Marya Sklowdowska in 1867, was a Polish chemist who spent her working life in France. She was extraordinarily brilliant and won two Nobel prizes, one in physics for investigations into radioactivity (she coined that term) and another in chemistry for her discovery of the elements Polonium and Radium. She worked closely with her husband, Pierre, and without his admiration, support, and acknowledgement it is unlikely that Marie would have been as publicly successful as she was. They adored each other. Their daughter, Eve, wrote a biography of her mother, and when I read the (graphic!) description of his accidental death I wept in sympathy.
Marie came of age in a part of Poland that was under oppressive Russian rule which forced Polish identity to go underground. On top of this cultural oppression, Marie was forbidden to pursue a university education because she was a woman. Because of these obstacles Marie worked 8 years as a governess to make money so her sister could get a medical degree in Paris, with the understanding that her sister would then support Marie’s education. This is what came to pass. In Paris Marie was first in chemistry in her class of 2000 students, and second in mathematics. She earned doctorates in both subjects. Because of Pierre, she never went back to live in Poland although she was passionate about justice for Poland.
Marie was a child prodigy and taught herself to read at the age of four. Her early interest in the sciences was sparked by her father’s encouragement and the display case of scientific instruments he had in his study. When Marie later was maturing as a scientist, part of her success came from her precise use of scientific gadgets to measure radiation and the mass of very small things. She had amazing powers of concentration, and I see this ability to FOCUS as her special power. The idea of concentration is also demonstrated in the work that won her that second Nobel prize—Marie single handedly processed a ton of waste ore from uranium mining (pitchblende) to create a tiny sample of pure Radium. She boiled huge cauldrons of the crushed rock in a caustic solution and then set the results out in small dishes to evaporate. She describes the beautiful sight of the hundreds of dishes glowing with radiation in the dim twilight of their decrepit laboratory.
Marie Curie’s first breakthrough was noticing something worth looking into. Antoine Henri Becquerel first noticed a peculiar property of Uranium, that it could expose photo paper. He had been studying phosphorescence, but these new rays were different because they did not depend on the material first being exposed to light—they were coming from the material itself. But, after writing six papers on the subject in 1897, he went on to other things because he thought he had found all there was to find. It was Marie’s idea to measure the electrical charge of the rays using a device that Pierre and his brother had invented. The device took great concentration and precision to operate, and few people were as patient and dedicated as Marie, who took a week to teach herself how to use the device. Measuring the strength of radiation was key to her finding that there was something more radioactive than uranium in the pitchblende ore—Polonium and Radium. Work on the nature of radioactivity was profoundly important to the development of our understanding of matter.
The Curies became enormously famous around the world but they lamented this distraction from their work. Albert Einstein said he had never met anyone who was as unaffected by fame as Marie Curie. She was also a very unusual woman for her time in other ways. She was not interested in clothes and other traditionally feminine things, although she was dedicated to her family life. I get the sense that she was workman-like about this, just as she was with her research. She was very passionate and had a scandalous affair with a married physicist after Pierre had died. She was generally not concerned about social constraints and rules. Why shouldn’t she be with a man she loves? However, she was shamed by the press and was nearly denied her second Nobel Prize because of the scandal. This episode was so painful to her family that Eve Curie couldn’t write about it in the biography. Eve said only that gossip created a scandal, and that the gossip was incorrect.
RED: is the color of the Polish flag. Marie was a Polish patriot. The first element that she discovered she named after her beloved country: Polonium. She regretted that the element did not prove as famous and useful as the second element she discovered—Radium—because she wanted to call the world’s attention to the plight of Poland.
FLOWERS: Marie loved flowers. Here is a picture of the Curies setting off on their honeymoon bike trek through the French countryside. Her handlebars are draped with flowers. They took several such trips over the course of their marriage. Also shown is an example of the traditional Polish craft of papercutting. Flowers are a common motif. She had flower gardens at all her houses.
RADIUM: Soon after discovering and isolating radium, uses were found for the element. The most promising was its use in cancer treatment. It was quickly discovered that radium kills cells, and it was used to kill tumor cells. For some reason it took a while for the scientists who worked with radioactive materials to notice their effects on their own health. Radiation exposure made Pierre sick and Marie died from disorders related to exposure. Here is a Kossel diagram of the radium atom showing the arrangement of electrons.
PERIODIC TABLE: the scarf and shawl designs I made show the modern version of the Periodic Table of the Elements with question marks in the spaces of the elements which had not been discovered when Marie was working. The Periodic Table has changed over the years and it started out as little more than a list of elements arranged in groups with some of their distinguishing characteristics. I found an example of what it looked like in 1902. The Curies announced their discovery of Radium in 1898.
CHEMIST’S EVAPORATION DISH: this bit of equipment likely has not changed since the time of the alchemists. I ordered one from a scientific equipment company because I wanted to hold one in my hand. I also scanned this dish for the glowing “dots” in the shawl and scarf designs. A French stamp dedicated to Marie Curie also uses the image of the glowing dish. It is a potent object.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Note 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.
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.