Monday, May 1, 2017

Finding Treasure in Humble Media: Learning from Bartok and Homer


David and I made plans to visit Philadelphia so that we might see the exhibit American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent. It turns out that we had a lot of company in Philadelphia because the NFL Draft was taking place at the same time as our visit. In fact, this first-time outdoors event took place right in front of the stairs-made-famous-by-Rocky of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the exhibit is (for just two more weeks!) Walking over to the museum, we passed by block after block of barriers and idling engines powering the fun for fans. It was a warm day and we felt the welcome refreshment of cool air and relative quiet. It turned out to be an excellent day to be at the museum as the featured exhibit that we traveled to see had been packed throughout its tenure thus far, but that day, because of the NFL hubbub, the crowd was gently encountered.
     We walked into the calm, dimly lit (to protect the watercolor) exhibit. I was immediately struck by  a couple of things: 1) watercolor here refers to transparent watercolor (called simply watercolor) and also opaque watercolor, also called gouache (I thought they were different) and, 2) graphite (pencil), chalk and pastel were routinely used in conjunction with watercolor. The artists were not purists about using only transparent watercolor. Of course, they did not have to be purists. They were already using a medium that was not considered 'professional' or salon worthy. Watercolors were employed by women and hobbyists, along with school children. So the artists were freed from the typical bonds of academe and market. Some of the works in the exhibit were sketches and studies. But most were finished work. Many of the earlier pieces gave the same effect as oil paintings. The virtuosity was quite amazing (and it also explains the use of opaque watercolor and Chinese white.) But gradually, as we absorbed the teaching of the exhibit, one could feel the loosening liberation allowed by the medium.
    Winslow Homer's is the first painting you see, drawing you in. His astonishingly fresh work appears throughout. This made me wonder: why does Homer's work look so fresh? Is it because painting was a natural activity for him? His mother painted with watercolor (her work is included in the exhibit). He also had thorough practice in observation, having made illustrations of action during the Civil War. This required fresh, accurate and fast perception. Watercolor works very well with this sort of composing. There is no reworking or continual tweaking of the composition.
   At the end of the exhibit, there is a compare and contrast room of work by Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent. Both artists' work are breathtakingly beautiful, of course. Sargent is simply virtuosic with complicated masses of people (or alligators).  Every stroke is perfection. Homer's work is more rustic and immediate. You feel the bright sun or the cold water and heavy skies. Homer is intimately involved with nature. In the very last room, some of the artists' art materials are exhibited. Sargent's tubes of watercolors are on display and Homer's well worn box of pan watercolors with brushes that must have been transformed when laden with watercolor.
   The exhibit left me refreshed and affirmed in my newfound use of economical but versatile materials.

Bartok Harmony, 8 x 10", opaque watercolor and Cray-pas
This painting was created in response to a performance of Bartok's Quartet No. 3,
performed in November by the Daedalus String Quartet, in Lexington, KY, November 2016.
please see my blog from 11-21-16: Back to the Church of Bartok
    David did some brilliant preparatory work and discovered that on Saturday, the Curtis Institute of Music would be presenting all six string quartets by Bela Bartok. We thought we would walk over and stay for the first couple of quartets. It turned out that this was not merely a recital by world class students, but a whole project: The Bartok Project. Students studied Bartok and the background of the period in which he wrote the six quartets. The works were composed during a roughly 30 year period, basically from the build up to WWI through the beginning WWII. Bartok's world (in Hungary) was in a state of despairing flux.
    Before each quartet was performed, the four musicians would make a brief presentation about Bartok, his influences, the quartet or the world at the time of the writing of the quartet. This exercise enhanced the experience of listening to the music even above the spectacular renderings by amazing musicians. A different quartet of musicians presented each of the six quartets. We learned that Bartok was an introverted personality, personally quiet in nature. He had a keen interest in folk music, a humble media that Bartok brought to his compositions. Bartok shared this interest in Hungarian and peasant folk music with compatriot composer Zoltan Kodaly. The upheavals referred to above were coming into play. We listened to Quartet Nos. 1 and 2 with this in mind. I am sure that you are not surprised that we were determined to stay for more when the intermission arrived--plus, there was pizza!
    After a lovely luncheon repast, where we were able to mingle with the musicians, we settled in for Quartet Nos. 3 and 4. The recital was in the Gould Rehearsal Hall. The musicians were seated facing each other and the audience encircled the musicians. We were encouraged to change our seats and vantage point, which David and I did. This has helped me remember what I heard during which quartet because I could envision where I was sitting and only had to narrow it down to two quartets! These quartets are known for their dissonant qualities, though I think we have become more accustomed to dissonance. Bartok creates a lot of texture in his quartets. This particularly came through in this segment (at least, that is what I noticed from this vantage point--all the texture for pizzicato, ponticello, using the back of the bow to strike the string (col legno--I had to look that up!) snapping the string so hard that it hits the sound board. Bartok used all sorts of techniques in an experimental manner. Was he freed up by his use of folk music? In the Quartet No. 4, the harmony was such that it sounds like another instrument, such as an accordion is in the mix. It was an extraordinary effect.
    You know by now that we stayed for the whole project. After a break with cake, we reseated for Quartets Nos. 5 and 6. It was a bit of serendipity that as we moved, the musicians changed their arrangement. The viola and cello were across from each other and the two violins likewise opposite each other. I was able to see the violist for every quartet. This pleased me immensely. Presentations around Quartet No. 5 centered on mathematics, nature and Bartok's love of symmetry. My ears perked when the discussion covered some of the same territory that I addressed when talking about my ideas about harmony, including the golden mean and the Fibonacci sequence (please see my blog, Harmony...naturally, 2-9-17) . Abigail Fayette, violin, passionately spoke of how Bartok's compositions were complex and yet simple; like nature. I felt this explanation most acutely during the two 'night music' movements, the second and fourth, when I could hear the night sounds; harmonious bullfrogs and gentle wind through the grasses.  Quartet No. 6 was Bartok's last full piece composed in his homeland of Hungary. He knew he would be leaving. It is full of his sadness: Mesto, Mesto, Mesto, Mesto--all four movements.

A cake for The Bartok Project, cut in golden mean proportions, third by third, in layers of 3 and 5?
     What an opportunity for David and me to learn more about Bartok and have our appreciation grow in such a rich way. The weekend was a reminder to me that sometimes the solution lies in returning with humility to see life in a fresh way and then create.
   
 

Monday, April 17, 2017

Industrious Cottage

My work space--scaled to fit my creating and me!
In just over a week I will be taking part in an online workshop to become a SoundWerker* We have been instructed to create a 'sanctuary' for learning, so I've been clearing the decks in my very layered workspace/atelier. The act of clearing allows the basic beauty of this space to re-surface. I love being here even when the horizontal surfaces are loaded! I am surrounded by both possibilities and products of my endeavor. All the materials are at hand and I can sit down and get to work. The bank of windows gives me a three inch clearance when I stand looking out the window. It is like being in a tree house and I can look across the street at the prettiest little house in Lexington. Architectural elements held in common with my former studio which I had to relinquish, abound: stained window trim and beams spanning the ceiling area, not to mention lots of angles. ** David's taborets, which he made from  drawers recycled from our former lake house, hold all my art materials. In my new space, he designed cubbies, making use of otherwise empty space are the place for stashing large tablets and boards. David also crafted several 'hoppers' and a chest which are likewise essential for storage. The paper file  was a hand-me-down from Heike Pickett that is most appreciated!

Building on the past with inspiration from the grandmothers

The space fits important furnishings that have been with me throughout my life. I have the kitchen table from my childhood, an old French table with fat legs, made of oak. It is the table that supported my baking habit. The old wooden case for my maternal grandmother's harp aligns perfectly with the slope of the ceiling and holds my fabric stash, fabrics that I use to make aprons (a constant in the wardrobe of my paternal grandmother.) Last summer's project, Redbud-the-harp, stands at the ready between the taborets and the old oak table. I can sit down in the midst of things and work out an issue  (or a kink!) while looking out the window as the trees transition from bloom to leaf.
Artificial arboration decoration
Right now, I'm working at a desk that I thought would be great for David, but is perfect for me and my laptop. There aren't any trees to look out upon, so I created some artificial arboration.

The lower workshop: for framing and now a bit of woodworking

An older space in the house is also put to use. Once David's domain, I have invaded. The barrier was earlier broken when we placed our exercise equipment in the basement workshop. I had plenty of time to think about the space while I was cycling and rowing. I use the kids' old work table for framing and now I seem to be making some instruments out of user-friendly Musicmakers kits.*** As I mentioned, Redbud now resides up in the atelier. Cherry Bloom is coming together in the basement workshop.
Cherry Bloom the Old World Lyre receives her first coat of finish
I suppose that the kitchen is also a place of industry in our house. Fortunately for me, David is invading that territory and he makes a couple of dinners a week while I am down in the basement sanding or upstairs working on a painting or playing Redbud. Life is a lot more fun when I am making things (and it isn't always supper)!

* I am studying through the SoundWerk Certification Course, Lynda Kuchenbrod, Director. The mission is to use the healing power of music, sound and vibration made by plucked instruments. Interested? See soundwerker.com.

** We are so grateful for the sensitive and excellent work of Graham Pohl of Pohl Rosa Pohl. He listened carefully to what we wanted and designed the perfect space! He also told us when something was not going to work and he designed with structural integrity in mind.

*** If you have ever dreamed of making an instrument, I highly recommend Musicmakers. Their directions are written in a thorough, but light and encouraging way. I was a complete novice when I made my harp, Redbud. They have all kinds of instruments. I love that Musicmakers is also encouraging the return to the informal making of music through their instrumental offerings. For more information, see: harpkit.com.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Remembering Harmonies: The Art of Mary Louise Dean

Mary Louise Dean, Rather Nebulous, 36 x 36", oil on canvas
In her previous life, Mary Louise Dean worked to distill a boatload of information into just enough material to fit on a single printed page. The resulting "essence" was handed off to The Creatives to work on PR and marketing.
    When Mary Louise retired, she returned to her home state of Kentucky, where she found a picturesque house in picturesque surroundings.  In this appropriate setting, Mary Louise rekindled the art flame that was smoldering through the years. She began painting the landscape just outside her windows. She joined the local plein air group and painted scenes all around the Central Kentucky environs. Mary Louise honed her skills with oil on canvas. Treks to New Mexico were sketched, images rendered.
Mary Louise Dean, Sky Shadows, 36 x 36", oil on canvas

  As she worked on her skill and her ability to distill the landscape, Mary Louise became increasingly aware of her personal vision. Working on large canvases (36 x 36") she began to paint from memory, letting her distinctly harmonious distillations shine through. Artist Edgar Degas said "It's all very well to copy what you see, but it is better to draw only what you see in memory. Then you reproduce only what has struck you, that is to say, the essentials..."* 
   Naturally, Mary Louise Dean has been practicing the distillation process for years. Now she has added the storytelling element. As Ms. Dean says herself: "My desire is to create art with the full illumination of all I know in the present moment--what I have learned, and what I have seen and what I know about myself...The work..is a blend of landscape abstraction and my search for a greater connection with the world. These are memory paintings about beautiful places with an invitation to the viewer to recall his/her own experiences." The result is a brilliant celebration of harmony.

  I am very pleased that Mary Louise Dean's work will be on display with mine in our exhibit at MS Rezny Studio/Gallery through the month of March. I hope you will have the opportunity to experience her work.

harmony
Mary Louise Dean
Kathy Rees Johnson
MS Rezny Studio/Gallery, 903 Manchester Street, Distillery District, Lexington, KY
28 February - 31 March 2017
Reception on Gallery Hop Night: 17 March 2017
For more information: msrezny.com

*Shapiro, Barbara S. Edgar Degas: The Reluctant Impressionist. Boston: Exhibition catalog for the Museum of Fine Arts. Boston, 1974. 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Harmony...naturally

Bartok Harmony, 8 x 10", mixed media
Over these past eighteen months or so, as I have been creating for the upcoming harmony exhibit, I have given a lot of thought to harmony...naturally! What exactly is harmony and what makes something harmonious? Why do certain notes work together, while other ones grate? Why are some colors yummy together and others vibrate violently against each other? Textures and pattern can hum sympathetically or jar us awake.

The bottom line, I have decided is that harmony is a completely natural phenomenon. That is the only way I can explain it. Getting to the underpinnings of what works together, you can find patterns that apply to more than one sense of perception. For example, the golden mean which is a way of determining pleasing proportions also shows up when considering intervals between pitches.  A perfect fifth has ratio of 2:3 between the sound waves, like the golden mean*. The golden mean is based on the Fibonacci sequence, which is a sequence of numbers starting with 1 and adding the previous two numbers to determine the next: e.g. 1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55,89,144... This pattern and proportion can be found all over in nature; in pinecones, nautilus shells, sunflower seed heads. Perhaps this is because of how things grow, unfurling.

So nature is the bottom line. Still, ideas about harmony have made shifts throughout human history. What seems discordant to humans can become accepted and desired later. Kay Gardner, in her book Sounding the Inner Landscape, speaks of intervals (and mode nomenclature!) that dance dangerously close to the divine, according to the earlier church. Now, our attitudes and ears are more open to the experience. Even with our relative openness now, we still find comfort in the fundamental harmonies that exist in nature.

Throughout my time of exploration, I have sensed the broadness of harmony. I have tuned into composers and artists and picked up on their individual harmonic sensibilities. Landscapes have sung in harmony. I have discovered that musical modes can align with energy centers of the body in interesting harmonies. When I asked Mary Louise Dean to join me in creating for this exhibit, she asked me what I meant by harmony. I had not thought so much about a definition, but I said it is about relationships. That definition is perhaps still the best.

Mary Louise Dean, Koi Pond, 36 x 36", oil on canvas
An interesting thing happened when Mary Louise showed me her work for the exhibit. Besides being thrilled by the visual delight before me, I immediately began to make pairings of our work. We were working in harmony without even knowing it!

Kathy Rees Johnson, In the Night Garden
12 x 12", mixed media

harmony
Paintings by Mary Louise Dean
and Kathy Rees Johnson
MS Rezny Studio/Gallery
903 Manchester Street
28 February - 31 March 2017

* Gardner, Kay. Sounding the Inner Landscape. Element Books, Inc. Rockport, MA, 1997.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Blessed Johnny Come Lately

Matthew: 20.1-16 Laborers in the vineyard
Transept painting at Faith Lutheran Church
   I've been making small paintings of French vineyards and in a post described myself as "still working in the vineyard".  That made me think about the parable of Jesus in Matthew (20. 1 - 16) where laborers are hired to work, some early in the day and others in the last hours and they all get paid the same amount, regardless of how long they have labored that day. The weary day-long workers grumble: "These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat." The landowner replies: "Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to the last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?" 
   At first glance, and to most people, the allocation of payments seems unfair. But, to me, as a relative Johnny come lately to church, there was a definite justness to it. I look at the long-day worker and think, he was chosen early on and did not spend the day wondering how he was going to pay for his next meal. The long-day laborer knew he would be paid. He knew what his story would be for that day. 
  Although I was baptized as an infant (no doubt the influence of my maternal grandmother), my family growing up belonged to the Unitarian-Universalist church. I was told, on a regular basis, by some of my Christian junior high classmates that I was going to hell. Most of these proclamations even came from the daughter of a minister. Now later, as I have spent almost three decades enveloped  in the church, I am curious about the junior high schoolers sitting in their own pew. The message I hear every week is more consistent with the landowner's claim: you agreed to the wage and here is your pay! Good news! And, everyone else can lay claim to the reward, because they have come to work in the vineyard. Why would the outreach of young Christians consist of condemnation. Shouldn't it be a hallelujah?
   Of course, Jesus, in this parable is speaking of the Kingdom of God. I believe this parable also speaks to our wild, democratic experiment: The United State of America. Everyone, except the Native Americans (and they too, no doubt, ultimately made their way from the birthplace of humanity) came from somewhere else. We came to the American vineyard in search of a better life. Has the story really ever changed? Some of us are bonafide day-long laborers. Some of us are first generation. We are all in the vineyard. We are all worthy. This is the way our country has always worked. Why would we change it now? If our country is such a shining example, wouldn't we give a hearty welcome to people who are carrying out the brave and challenging move of our forebears? 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Third Aeolian Advent


Third Aeolian Advent, 5 x 8", mixed media

All the ideas for this posting came together, appropriately, in the inky-dark of an early December morning. I've been cogitating on the sixth chakra, also called the Third Eye, and the Aeolian mode, the sixth of the seven modes that I've been studying. My exercise has been to pair the chakras and the modes, one through seven. At the same time, there was a call out from Performance Today to identify one's favorite Christmas carol. I thought back on this and remembered the effect that hearing O, Come, O, Come Emmanuel for the first time, almost forty years ago, had on me. There was a haunting yearning that swirled inside in me. In the darkness, I wondered if the carol was in the Aeolian mode. When I woke up later in the morning, I tried it out on Redbud, my modal harp. Yes! These three entities come together in a surprisingly close way and offer guidance for today's world.

The Third Eye energy center is all about perception and knowledge. In fact, it is about the knowledge that makes knowledge.  All this knowledge is gathered together and funneled down the feminine triangle (pointed side down). When we use our Third Eye, we are able to see the world clearly. We can "analyze, think, reason, perceive, understand, discern, dream, imagine and visualize."* We also open our eyes to beauty and wonder. Spiritual experience is grounded.  "What we have experienced in the depths must also stand the test of everyday life."**  Arnold Bittlinger, in his book Archetypal Chakras, points out that "everything comes to an end... even the time of retreat".  We must take all that we learned in our introversion and act. Personal will unites with divine will in harmony.

Indigo is the absorbing color of the sixth chakra. Indigo is a mix of blue, the absorbing color of the Throat Chakra, and violet, the absorbing color of the Crown Chakra.  Golden Moon is the transmitting color.  Moon imagery made me think about the cycles of the moon and time passing. This energy center is about understanding the past, clearly seeing the present and envisioning a future.

How does this energy about knowledge and perception tie in with the Aeolian mode? The Aeolian mode is "introspective, plaintive and hauntingly beautiful"*** This describes how I felt on hearing Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel. How odd that Rejoice!  is chanted in such a melancholic sounding tone. Played in all naturals, the Aeolian is based on the key of A minor with alternating major and minor chords. The lyrics are sympathetic to the Aeolian plea and the Third Eye yearning through understanding the past (O come, thou Branch of Jesse's tree) seeing the present (Israel...mourns in lonely exile) and imagining the future (O come, Desire of nations, bind in one the hearts of all man-kind).

Now, I hear you saying, "Kathy, this is not a Christmas carol! It is an Advent hymn!" And, you are correct. Advent is a very sixth chakra season. We are invited to pause, perceive and prepare; and admonished to keep awake. Our weary world is in need of folks opening the presents of the Third Eye; seeing the world as it is and imagining with generous spirits and hope.

* Choquette, Sonia. True Balance: A Commonsense Guide for Renewing Your Spirit. Three Rivers Press, New York, New York; 2000.  The chapter on "Balanced Personal Vision" is very timely reading. I highly recommend it.

** Bittlinger, Arnold. Archetypal Chakras: Meditations and Exercises for Opening Your Chakras.
Red Wheel/Weiser, York Beach, ME; 2001.

*** Mell, Joanna. Modal Musings: Modes & Music. Joanna Mell; 2011.
   

Monday, November 21, 2016

Back to the Church of Bartok






Bartok Harmony, Opaque watercolor and Cray-pas, 8 x 10"

Growing up, my family belonged to the Unitarian-Universalist Church. At some point, after I had started playing the viola, a small instrumental (mostly/entirely strings?) ensemble was formed. It was called Bartok's in honor of the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (1881-1945). The thinking at that time (the mid to late '60s) was that Bartok was under-appreciated. Our leader was Dr. Wagner, a chemistry professor at the University of Kentucky. He had high hopes for our little band. I remember him becoming very angry with his son, Russell, our cellist, who went on to become a luthier in the Chicago area. I had only 2-3  years of experience on the viola under my belt and the music of Bartok (which naturally, was featured) was way beyond my skill-set. My older brother, also a violist, was part of the ensemble. He was more adept. We carried on, no doubt propelled by Jenny Wagner, who went on to be the Assistant Concertmaster for the Chicago Symphony. Meanwhile, I muddled through and had great anticipation for what would follow the Friday practice session--our weekly spaghetti supper!

     So imagine my excitement when I learned that our local chamber music society would be sponsoring a concert by the Daedalus String Quartet including Bartok's String Quartet No. 3. And, since they are trying out new venues this year, it would be at the U-U Church. I would be able to actually hear Bartok's music in my old haunt. It would be my chance to hear the argument for Bartok within the decagonal confines of my youth. 
      We arrived on a cold, but sunny afternoon. When the the church was built, it was way out in the country. Now, you have to watch carefully for the turn. It comes up quickly after the houses end in a concentrated suburbia. The church provides a welcome green space in the midst of development. The trees and arbors have been growing for decades and are taking on an ancient quality. The sanctuary space remains decagonal, but where we had sort of a theater-in-the-round quality to the worship space, there is now a modest rise in the altar area. This was the "stage". The musicians walked up from the lobby area in the back to take the stage. 





     The concert began with Beethoven's String Quartet No. 1 in F major, Op. 18, No. 1. Now, I have actually worked on this quartet with the Fauve Five, but that is another story. Before playing Bartok's String Quartet No. 3, the cellist, Thomas Kraines* gave us a little back story. He explained that Bartok's first three quartets are considered "difficult." The harmonies were different for their time and perhaps, still so.  But, the listener can always hear the folk melodies, on which the composition is structured, by listening to the first violin. I kept that in mind as the four beautiful musicians began. I was listening for what had prompted Dr. Wagner to hold Bartok in such high regard. The music is highly textured. There are bits of folklife emerging, but also a surround of dissonance, almost. Ah, there it is. Bartok is the composer for the church of my youth. The Unitarians (as I thought of us) wanted to hang their faith on an easy yoke of tradition and ritual (folk tunes) and all around would be individual voices, which are uniquely harmonious in their sense of freedom. This reminds me of a quip I used to make about the U-U church: most people believe that their faith is the only true one, Unitarians believe that they alone, as individuals,  are correct. I learned something important at this concert. It is not the individual, it is a community of individuals, happy to be together in this warm, but slightly wild world, feeling free, but so contentedly tethered to the common melody. 

The view outside of the decagonal
      Thank you to the Daedalus Quartet for such a satisfying concert. Every member was excellent in their performance and uniquely beautiful (like Unitarians!) What a warm presence on a cold afternoon. Loveliness abounded both inside and out. The setting and the music were perfect!

* David "googled" Thomas Kraines and learned that both his parents are mathematicians. His father is an Algebraic Topologist (Emeritus) as is David.