Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Unexpected Art at Hennepin History Museum

Recently I met some friends at the Hennepin History Museum to see an exhibition of works by Becka Rahn inspired by objects in three local museums: HHM, the Bakken Museum, and The Museum of Russian Art (TMORA).

The exhibition, titled Unexpected Art: Surface design inspired by museum collections, features garments made from fabrics printed with motifs taken from a few museum objects selected by the artist. Each work is accompanied by a paper plaque with the image of a fancy frame, showing a photo of the original object when it was from one of the other two museums, and the artist's statement about it. For objects from HHM, the actual item was displayed alongside the creation it inspired.

The above is all paper, it just looks like a fancy frame enclosing a plaque.

Rahn made the motifs into surface design patterns, digitally printed those on fabric, then used the fabric to make garments she designed. The garment designs, as well as the motifs printed on the fabric, reflected Rahn's response to the selected object.

The paint palette of portrait artist Frances Cranmer Greenman, in the collection of the Hennepin History Museum
I was perplexed by her choice to use polyester fabric, which I thought detracted from her designs and skilled workmanship. It isn't just that I have a bias against petroleum-based synthetics, although I do, but also because such fabrics lack the crispness, body, and drape that would have shown her creations to best advantage. 

Dress inspired by Greenman's palette, with a scan of a portion of the palette providing the pattern for the colorful skirt panels.

It's possible that the polyester was better for printing on with an inkjet printer, which is what she said she used. But on a table displaying printed fabric samples, there were a few squares of cotton, and it looked like they took the ink very nicely. Despite that minor disappointment, I really enjoyed the exhibition and was inspired by it. 

I especially appreciated one she called "Glimmer of Green," where she used security envelopes to make paper collages inspired by a semi-surreal painting from TMORA by a dissident artist in the Soviet era, showing a small-town cathedral in Russia, which then became the pattern motif for a fabric that she made into a top.

As she states, the security envelopes relate to the idea that this painting, as well as others that did not conform to official standards, was hidden, secretive.

Paper collages made with security envelopes and other papers, inspired by the painting Uspenski Cathedral in a Village from the Museum of Russian Art

The collages themselves could have stood alone as finished artworks, except it appeared that such was not her intention; some of the pieces showed signs of coming detached from the background, and they were not coated or finished. 

I'm only showing you a very small sample of the works included and I do encourage you to see the rest of them up close and personal, which is quite possible in an intimate setting such as HHM, relying as they do on "Please do not touch" signs rather than barriers, so you can get really close to the works and related artifacts to examine them in detail.

In the second room, there was a board displaying a lot of doorknobs, some of which had labels identifying which buildings they came from, but most without any identifying labels. 

Detail of some of the doorknobs at HHM. The one on the right is featured in part on the exhibition postcard.

It's clearly an old object in the museum's collection of Minneapolis artifacts, and I don't recall seeing it on display before. 

It's really quite a delight in itself, and I don't recall what she made from these motifs, other than the postcard for the exhibition, and a zippered pouch for sale in the museum shop. Although some of the doorknob motifs may have made their way into this collage, which became another patterned fabric.

After leaving the museum I was walking up the street with my friend Ann, on our way to meet other friends at the Boiler Room coffee shop. As I was admiring the old apartment buildings we passed along the way, Ann commented on the architectural detail in the building facades. 

We were both experiencing a renewed awareness of and appreciation for the surface design and motifs all around us, inspired by the explorations of this particular artist.

Unexpected Art is on display through April 30 at the Hennepin History Museum, 2303 Third Ave. S., Minneapolis 55404.


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A Shamrock by Any Other Name ...

Last year's clover, in a sweet little vase from Catherine Reece pottery.
Perhaps because St. Patrick's Day occurs so close to the vernal equinox, I get a little preoccupied with shamrocks and clovers and other green growing things. 

It's the month when many Minnesota gardeners are getting ready to start seeds indoors, and although I feel the same urge, I haven't done much seed starting for quite a few years. I did plant some cilantro seeds in a peat pot a couple of days ago (they're sitting in a south window, waiting to germinate), and that may be the extent of it for me this year.

Some years I have started seeds of white clover, Trifolium repens, at the beginning of February in order to have a pot of them in time for St. Patrick's Day. I've even written about it here and here.

These are not the "shamrocks" you see in the grocery stores about now. That plant is a type of oxalis, aka sorrel, that does not grow wild in Ireland or any other part of the northern hemisphere. But it makes a much nicer houseplant than do the clovers, so I guess the greenhouse growers figured, why not?

Oxalis at Seward Co-op today, in a display with Irish oat bread. Note they're not calling them shamrocks.

The plant identified as a shamrock by a plurality of the Irish (46%  in a 1988 survey) is lesser trefoil, aka hop clover, aka several other common names, aka Trifolium dubium, which is a bit smaller than white clover and has yellow blossoms. Although not as well known as white clover, it is, apparently, about as widespread. Native to Europe and Central Asia, it's been introduced and naturalized in North America, Africa, and New Zealand. 

Phinney the Galway cat (at least, that's where his name comes from) with my watercolor illustration of T. dubium, one of the Irish shamrocks. (Phinney's much more interested in the pencil than the art.)

Now that I've been studying this plant a little, I'm pretty sure I've seen it in many of the grassy strips between the sidewalk and street (which we call the boulevard here in Minneapolis, an apparent idiosyncrasy of my city). It's considered invasive in many areas, but not always because it is a problem for native species; more often, it is said to "invade" lawns. But since lawns aren't exactly natural ecosystems, that's not really saying much. 

Some photos of T. dubium show the plant with much rounder slightly bluish leaves, but that could be a case of mistaken identity, since there are a few look-alike species, as this site explains. 

The reason I've tended to favor white clover (T. repens) as the shamrock, even though it was the runner-up to lesser trefoil in the fore-mentioned survey (at 35%), is because the seeds are easy to come by; and that's because it used to be considered a desirable addition to lawn grass seed mixtures; and that's because it's a legume, as is  T. dubium, and so "fixes" atmospheric nitrogen, which means that it makes it available for other plants to take it up, which makes the grass healthier and greener.

Now it's most often considered a weed by those who prefer a manicured grass-only lawn, an aesthetic that emerged after WWII and the introduction of broadleaf weed-killers, according to historian Virginia Scott Jenkins in her book, The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession (published by Smithsonian Books in 1994). 

In other words, it became a weed once there was an herbicide that could kill it. In fact, the target plants were plantain and dandelions, with clover being an innocent bystander, but in order to sell the chemicals to the public, the makers had to convince them that clovers were weeds too.  

Except now it's finding its way back into the good graces of those who prefer a low-maintenance, diverse lawn that's much prettier than a boring grass carpet. Clover is also very much appreciated by butterflies and bees (including several non-stinging wild bees), mammals* (yes, that includes rabbits, you bunny haters), and birds (who eat the seeds).

My recently completed watercolor of T. repens

Clovers are also edible to humans, offering both protein and carbohydrates. In fact, according to the comprehensive history by Charles Nelson in his book, Shamrock (Boethius Press, 1991), the earliest observations about shamrocks in Ireland, reported by literate visitors, were that the Irish ate them.

And that, not anything St. Patrick did with them (if he did), is the most likely reason shamrocks have become the emblem of Ireland.

* Fun fact—Other wild animals that consume white clover:

Leaves and flowers are eaten by grizzly bears, moose, mules, deer, blue grouse and the white-footed vole.

Seeds are eaten by these birds: northern bobwhite, bufflehead, American coot, several different grouse, the horned lark, mallard, gray partridge, greater prairie chicken, willow ptarmigan, American pintail, California quail, and American robin.

Many butterflies use them as caterpillar nurseries, including the eastern-tailed blue and several sulfurs and skippers. Still more butterflies visit clover blossoms for the nectar.

 (From Encyclopedia of Life)


Thursday, March 2, 2017

Learning about and drawing a finger labyrinth

Lately I've been working on reviving an item I stopped selling in my Etsy shop about a year ago. It was a small tin box with assorted items intended to provide a few moments of calm;  I called it a respite box.

Respite box ca. 2013
I've made a few modifications since I introduced it in early 2012, but the constants have been the hankie/altar cloth, the two sets of instructional and inspirational cards, a wire-and-stone note holder, the beeswax tea light, and the finger labyrinth. Plus the cover featuring a yellow vintage map with a crow and the word "respite" together with its definition. Of those items, the tea light was the only one I didn't make myself (and the tin, of course). (The beeswax tea light is from Minnesota beekeeper Sweet Bee Honey.)

That finger labyrinth proved to be the fussiest part and the main reason I decided to take a break from making them last year. It was also its main attraction, judging by the search terms that led people to the listing.

The labyrinth image is one I found on the internet that I could download copyright-free, and it was among the simplest versions I encountered. I reduced it to slightly over 2 inches wide, imposed over a background of a paste-paper/acrylic paint experiment of mine, which I liked because of its mottled pattern and soothing green color.

Then I would trace the path with Mod Podge (a type of glue that holds its shape pretty well and dries hard) applied with a small paint brush, in order to create a smooth raised surface for tactile tracing. After a while, the experience of tracing that tiny tight winding path with my paint brush again and again, trying with great effort to control the flow of the glue and keep the width somewhat even, felt very little like a mindfulness practice and much more like tedious neck-straining sweatshop work. So I stopped.

But I still like the idea of this box of mindfulness objects, and I do get inquiries about it on Etsy from time to time, so I've been meaning to revisit it to see if I can find a new way to make the finger labyrinth that I won't mind doing repeatedly.

I started by doodling and pondering alternative labyrinth shapes. Like, why not a simple spiral? Perhaps one that winds in and then turns around and goes back out. I made a prototype and found that I could trace its path with the glue in a small bottle, no need for a brush. 

The in-and-out spiral, wherein the path is the black line, which has a raised surface.

I was quite pleased with this first attempt and set about to review and revise the rest of the components in the box, beginning with the text of the instruction cards. That's when I realized that I had written almost nothing about the labyrinth, other than to refer to it as a tactile object. Really? Shouldn't I include a little bit of information about labyrinths in general and finger labyrinths in particular? Something about their history and uses?

So I embarked on a bit of research, reminding myself that this is not a thesis, it's just a little bit of text. But in order to write a little bit about any topic and have it be meaningful and truthful, one needs to have a somewhat thorough understanding of it. 

So far I've just read a few things I found online, but I've also downloaded an article from Science News and one from an academic journal called Agni, and I picked up a book from the library I'm looking forward to perusing. (Hopefully, I'll be content with these sources and not continue on a quest akin to walking a very large labyrinth!)

Labyrinths, mazes, and the number 7
I learned that labyrinths are different from mazes in their concept and design, in that mazes are intended to confuse and challenge you, with their many dead ends and wrong turns, while labyrinths are designed to guide you into a meditative state of mind, offering a clear path to the center and back out again.

“Walking the labyrinth is to experience that inner stillness, as the labyrinth’s intricate steps gently take the conscious mind out of the way, says the website Chakra Balancing, which has some interesting information about labyrinths and the seven chakras (energy centers in our bodies), claiming that the classical Cretan labyrinth of antiquity relates specifically to the chakras. 

Another site, Labyrinthina, also relates labyrinths to the number seven, beginning with the Hopi people of North America and their classical seven-path labyrinth representing Mother Earth.

So I began to play around with modifying my simple spiral to make it relate to this mystical number seven.

I read about how to use a labyrinth to get into a meditative or prayerful state of mind, as described in the New-agey website of the United Christ Church Ministries rather eloquently, and in terms more familiar to traditional Christians by the Upper Room. And it soon occurred to me that a continuous spiral doesn't really fulfill that function; it's just a little too simple.

But how do I address the need to make a path that doubles back while wending toward the center, and still meet my need to keep it simple enough to be traceable with glue?

So I resumed my doodling, and feel that this one may be it, although I still need to trace it in glue to see if it's too fussy.

It can also relate to the number seven if the starting point is considered to be one, and each major bend along the way is the next in the sequence, with the center being seven. It's not seven paths, but seven turning points, which seems symbolically appropriate to me.

You may notice in the above photo that my preliminary sketch wends to the right and the second one goes left. I switched it because I also read that one is supposed to trace the path with their non-dominant hand, and I'm right-handed, so going to the left first is more natural for me. It also seems intuitively that it should probably proceed clockwise. 

But I'm still learning about it, so I may change that. Or perhaps I will make it an option, to have it proceed clockwise or counterclockwise. 

However, I won't try to become an expert on labyrinths before getting on with my project!

BTW, here's a sneak peek at a prototype of the new cover, with a small watercolor painting I did of a path in a birch woods as the background (and the X to be replaced with a number, of course).