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Ambergris and Alchemy: A Pilgrimage to John Singer Sargent’s Fumée d’Ambre Gris.
By Grace Dane Mazur.
I. In the Museum: Flitting vs. Grazing
In the art museum I used to dart like a bee, flitting from one enticement to the next, sipping visual nectar, hoping for that magical transformation that turns the assorted glimpses into a rich honeycomb of the imagination. Recently I’ve become more of a grazer, a ruminant pilgrim, absorbing and re-absorbing a single painting.
My imagery is of intake, though I was cured of simple gluttony long ago, in a bakery in southern France where my husband offered to buy me every pastry that struck my fancy, if I agreed to eat them all. I took him up on this dare, believing in my youthful appetite to be infinite. So, while he and his brother strolled ahead on the coastal road talking of mathematics, I ambled along ecstatically sampling the pastries from a large white cardboard box. Soon sated, I slowed to a nibble and wondered what to do. Because of my deal, I couldn’t offer them what was left. So, when no one was looking, I flung the remaining sweetmeats–éclair and palmier and religieuse, tartelette aux fraises and baba au rhum one by one over the cliffs to the sea.
In the library we don’t have to read all the books; in a French pastry shop, I have learned, we don’t have to eat the whole display; and in a great museum–even though so many art works are gathered under one roof–we really don’t have to gorge on them. So at times I leave off my avid samplings of one entrancement after another; instead I make a pilgrimage dedicated to a single work, such as John Singer Sargent’s intoxicating woman in white in Fumée d’Ambre Gris at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown Massachusetts.
II. The Nature of Pilgrimages
For me, the goal of a pilgrimage is transformation and the journey itself is rare, far, hard, and dear.
Rare: If I do something every day it’s a habit not a pilgrimage. Habituated, I cease to pay attention. One has to get out of one’s world for a pilgrimage: if you live next to the Western Wall in Jerusalem and regularly go there to pray, it is not a pilgrimage, it is simply where you go to pray. If you live near the Ganges, even where it is holy, and regularly go to bathe there, this too is not a pilgrimage. I’ll get back to a connection between rarity and attention at the very end of this essay.
Far: The goal of the pilgrimage should be far from home. Often there’s a sense of the uncanny (unheimlich) about it. It’s as though the distance allows us to be taken out of ourselves during the journey, giving us space for the hoped-for transformation.
Of course this perceived distance may be experiential rather than geographical. In Japan the tea ceremony hut may be just at the far edge of the garden. The stepping stones that lead to it are slanting and unevenly spaced. This is on purpose, so that you will have to watch your footing. Looking down, you lose sight of the little hut, no longer noticing how close it really is. It might be anywhere. It might be infinitely far. It is a different world.
Hard: the difficulty can be physical, though it needn’t be. I find it hard to get to the Clark Art Institute because I panic when the surrounding mountains block out the sky, curtailing the day. I start to worry as soon as I can no longer smell the sea.
But there are more general difficulties: epiphanies do not come when called; boredom and puzzlement and jitters may appear in their place.
Dear: I mean this both in the sense of costly and beloved. The usual costs being money and time–the travel time but also the planning, research, study, learning, musing, yearning. This preparation of mind and soul are part of what differentiates ordinary travel from pilgrimage. The daily commute may be hard and far and time-consuming, but it probably isn’t dear to your soul, you don’t prepare deeply for it, and it definitely isn’t rare.
What could it mean to go to Emily Dickinson’s house if you haven’t read her, or to Combray without having been immersed in Proust? These are simply places, habitats. In themselves they are no different from the neighboring towns or houses except for what we bring to them, by some combination of preparation and close attention. Any transformation that comes about is not what they do to us, but what we do to ourselves as they examine us.
The object of the pilgrimage–artistic or secular or sacred–has to be dear, too, in the sense of beloved of intellect or soul. Otherwise, all that expenditure of time and money, preparation and study will smack too strongly of duty.
So with sacks and walking sticks–physical or mental–and amulets and signs, this unusual uncomfortable uncanny dislocation encourages deep attention to the voyage and its yearned for goal.
III. The Object of this Pilgrimage: The Painting
Sargent made sketches for this oil painting during a visit to Tangiers in 1879 and exhibited the finished canvas in the Paris Salon of the following year.
1. John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925), Fumée d’Ambre Gris (Smoke of Ambergris), 1880. Oil on canvas, 64 1/2 x 45 1/2 x 3 in. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts
A woman stands beside a column in a tall Moroccan arch. She holds her veil over her head to form a tent to catch the smoke rising from a silver brazier on the floor in front of her. Her layered robes are a buttery tea-soaked white, against the cooler mauve and verdigris tones of the whitewashed walls. The filtered overhead light and the orientation of the patterned carpet hint that she is at the edge of a vast room or interior courtyard.
Our woman in white is so columnar that she seems like an architectural element herself. She reminds me of a caryatid, one of those female figures serving as columns for a temple, as in the Erectheum of the Acropolis in Athens.
2. Caryatids on the Erectheum, Acropolis, Athens. Courtesy Wikipedia.
The caryatids, too, had simple tunics secured at the shoulder, over long flowing skirts; their elaborate head-dresses turn into the capitals supporting the architrave of the temple.
But Sargent has lifted his subject from her surroundings, architectural or societal, in order to focus on her and what she is doing. Although gesturally monumental, her activity is sensual rather than architectural.
Before we get to what she is actually doing, let’s look at her lifted veil, her robes, her fibulae.
3. Sargent. Fumée d’Ambre Gris. Detail of Face and Veil
She lifts her veil and it becomes a parasol and tent, shading her from the indirect sunlight and capturing the fumes of the incense, directing them towards her face and her clothing. Although unveiled, her face is also hidden, for her gaze is withdrawn; the intensity of her engagement is not with us, nor with the painter, but with the ambergris incense. But we see that she is highly made-up, with kohl-darkened eyes and brows, rouged lips, painted fingernails, and a pair of rings on her little finger.
4. Sargent. Fumée d’Ambre Gris. Detail of sleeves
Her sleeves invite us in, with their dark charcoal shadows against the flesh of the forearms, milk-tea-colored mid-range of the outer layers, and dry brushstrokes evoking the frothy white cotton gown in between. A shockingly saturated strip of tangerine indicates the edge of some mysterious intergarment, hinting at the presence of an unknown inner life. There is so much we don’t know about her.
5. Sargent. Fumée d’Ambre Gris. Detail of Fibulae and Chain
Perhaps the closest to “pure white” among the cream and milk and pearl tones of this painting are the highlights of the brilliant silver fibulae, functional jewels that serve as decorative brooch, necklace, and safety pin. Here they secure one layer of her shawl to her tunic.
6. Photograph of Moroccan fibula. Silver. 7” long.
In this photograph of a Moroccan fibula almost identical to those in Sargent’s painting, we see the wonderful simplicity of this form of pin, where the circular hold-all is rotated after the layers of cloth are pierced, to keep the sharp pin from sliding out and coming undone.
The fibulae occur prominently in the small watercolor painting of the same scene “Incensing the Veil,” at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. (Sargent inscribed this to the Parisian surgeon Dr. Samuel Pozzi; his portrait of Pozzi, finished in 1881, now in the Armand Hammer Collection in Los Angeles, is a striking and astonishing study in reds…but that is for another time.)
IV. What is Happening?
This painting depicts and enacts an entrancement, for as our gaze travels from the implied arch above the truncated pillars down to the solitary woman, and circles within the embrace of her tent-like clothing following the chain of the fibulae, and then drops down to the smoke from the ambergris burning in the censer, and extends along the geometric patterns of the carpet and the tiles, and then back up the plaster walls to the archway again, imagining the extended view of the arcades and courtyard, we fall under the spell of the woman and the painting, our questions gathering like the smoke under the tall arcade:
Is she courting the spiritual world, invoking or averting demons? Or is her mission purely sensual? Is she self-intoxicating by inhalation? Or is she using the ambergris fumes as an aphrodisiac to perfume her garments for an erotic assignation? What is ambergris that she should use it thus?
7. Sargent. Fumée d’Ambre Gris. Detail of Brazier
A few wisps of perfumed smoke rise from the smoldering ambergris whose live coals can be glimpsed through the elaborate fretwork of the silver brazier.
Although the properties of ambergris have been known for centuries–and also its uses as medicine, condiment, aphrodisiac, and perfume–its origins remain somewhat mysterious, and are still the subject of study and debate. It is related only in name to the yellow (or “baltic”) amber which is fossilized tree resin. This grey amber is the product of sperm whales, both male and female, and it can be found in dead whales, on beaches or floating in the sea. Although it was long thought to be whale vomit, it is now known to be a coprolith or pathological concretion formed in the hind gut. Since these gigantic beasts, often 60 feet long, spend most of their lives a mile or two below the ocean’s surface, it is not known, for example, whether the whale can evacuate the ambergris by normal means, or whether the animal dies from the immense blockage. While ambergris always contains numerous inclusions of the beaks of squids and other cephalopods, it is no longer thought that these indigestible blades actually cause the pathology. In most of the sperm whale population anything indigestible is simply vomited, and has no relation to ambergris. It is only in about one out of a hundred sperm whale individuals that an indigestible mass builds up in the gut—think of a hairball in a cat–and successive layers of feces are laid down around the mass. Over time, worked on by the wonderfully rich and diverse organisms in the microbial garden of the gut, the deep inner core of this mass becomes hard and grey and fascinatingly fragrant, while the fresher, outer layers, usually blacker and mushier, simply reek like fresh whale dung.
It had long been thought that ambergris has to spend 10 or 20 years floating in the sea currents, exposed to sun and the elements, in order to transform from fecal matter to the rare and elusive “floating gold” so valued by the high end perfume industry that its price is around $1000 a pound. A more likely explanation––according to the late expert Robert Clarke, in his definitive “The Origins of Ambergris”––is that the long sea bath eventually washes off the smelly black outer layers, leaving the hard grey inner core, which is already sweet smelling, having undergone its miraculous transformation long ago inside the whale.
In perfume, ambergris works in two different ways: it fixes the perfume by combining with the scent molecules of an existing fragrance making them heavier, so they linger on the skin for a much longer time before evaporating. Ambergris also heightens the perfume by adding its own unique scent to the mix. The irony of ambergris being used only in the most expensive perfumes is beautifully caught by Melville:
“Who would think, then, that such fine ladies and gentlemen should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale.”
The scent has been called indescribable, though many have tried, and have likened it to the smell of:
old wood from animal barns
old wood from old churches
walking in the woods
The odd thing about the scent of ambergris is while there is always an “animalic” undercurrent, unlike the smell of most dungheaps there is an addictive quality to ambergris and one yearns to smell it again and again. Apparently it is not a pheromone for whales, because they have a poorly developed sense of smell, and because it occurs in only one out of a hundred sperm whale individuals. It may, however, work like a pheromone on humans, and/or cause secretion of pheromones, which could account for its reputation as an aphrodisiac. It is enough, it is said, simply to rub it on your skin.
Historically it was used in medicine and cooking, and is still used in the Middle East as incense, perfume, and flavoring for food and even tea (by putting a dab on the inside of the cover of a tea pot). Brillat-Savarin added it to hot chocolate, and claimed that it cured physical and emotional ills, exhilarating the spirit.
When I was a child, I scoured the beaches of Cape Cod for ambergris thinking that it was somehow akin to pirate treasure. This hunt is still a full time job for some folks, particularly in Australia and New Zealand, where ambergris seems to wash up on the beaches with greater frequency than in New England because of the greater frequency of sperm whales. But because ambergris floats it can turn up on any shore in the world. Besides, the longer the sea bath, the more of the reeking fresh outer layers will be washed off, leaving the sought-after core.
It floats, it is hard and waxy. It can be any size, from a pebble to a huge boulder. It can look like a sea smoothed stone. Or like pumice. Blackish or yellowish or greenish or snot-colored or grayish white. It will probably have sharp blackish inclusions in it, the beaks of squids and octopi.
Be careful, though, for there are other waxy things that float and turn up on the beach: cooking lard from ships at sea; municipal sewer cleaning chemicals; rotting carcasses of marine animals or gulls; whale blubber; seal dung; tar. All of these can get your hopes up.
How do you know if this hard buoyant object you have found is ambergris? Try poking it with a red hot needle. It should melt. It should also have an indescribable, fascinating smell. This quest can become an obsession, as Christopher Kemp describes in his recent FLOATING GOLD: A natural (and unnatural) history of ambergris. After reading his book, you, too, will lift stone after stone on the beach in order to heft and furtively smell it.
And when you find some ambergris? You should contact the highly reputed Bernard Perrin at http://www.ambergris.fr/index.html and if he finds your description interesting, he will ask for a tiny sample so that he can run a chemical analysis. If it is the real thing, he will make you an offer.
VI. Ambergris as Natural Alchemy
If material alchemy is the transformation of base matter into gold, the formation of ambergris in the whale can be thought of as a natural alchemy, for what could be baser than a mass of feces and indigestible squid parts? And few things are more costly than the final product.
We are used to the domestic metamorphoses so elegantly performed by bacteria, yeasts, and molds to make our wine, cheese, pickles, yogurt, and bread. In these cases, though, the number of different types of microorganisms is much smaller than the widely diverse populations in that garden of microbial flora which is the hindgut of the sperm whale. In our kitchen transformations, too, the starting materials are often not so crude at all, but very edible–grapes, cucumbers, milk–though they may be less interesting than the final product. In the alchemy of garden compost, however–the formation of “black gold” from kitchen wastes or barnyard manure–the great increase in value between the crude precursor and fine product is closer to that of ambergris.
Perhaps the most familiar alchemical transformation in literature occurs in the Grimms’ tale “Rumpelstiltskin.” Here the eponymous imp saves the life of a beautiful girl whose father–a criminally boastful miller–has told the king that she can spin straw into gold. Three times the king says the girl must spin a roomful of straw into gold before morning. Of course she can’t, and falls to weeping. Three times the imp comes and does it for her. But each time, the text says, it takes him all night to perform this transformation.
8. Rumpelstiltskin and the Miller’s Daughter. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
From Household Stories by the Brothers Grimm, translated by Lucy Crane, illustrated by Walter Crane, first published by Macmillan and Company in 1886. Project Gutenberg.
If Rumpelstiltskin were performing simple magic, even a roomful of straw could be changed into gold in an eye-blink, a finger-snap, or with the recitation of a magic phrase.
What is happening here is not magic, but rather work, using a special skill, over a considerable time: the whole nightlong. As in any good alchemy, this transformative work takes application, knowledge, attention. The king himself can’t do it—he is not fit for work of the hands; nor the miller, who probably works with his hands, but doesn’t know how to spin; and even the miller’s daughter, who can probably spin wool, clearly doesn’t know how to work with straw.
Spinning itself is a strange transformation. No physical or chemical changes are going on, as in all the microbial and alchemical processes mentioned above, just a wondrous change in shape. In spinning you take fibers, from fur of sheep, camel or goat, or from plant stalks like flax or bamboo, all of which are too short to really work with, or you take fibers of silk, which are exremely long but too thin to work with, and you twist many fibers together so that you can weave or knit or sew them into sheets which can be draped over large areas. So you are turning what are essentially linear short fibers into long fibers which can then be braided or knotted or linked into planar figures–a change of dimension.
VIII. Figure vs. Portrait
Sargent’s woman in white enchants us while at the same time excluding us from her consciousness. In this she demonstrates some of the differences between the “figure painting” and the portrait.
In figure paintings we, the viewers, tend to stay on the outside, voyeurs, for the figure is not in conversation with us.
The sitter for a portrait has either commissioned the work: Here’s money, please paint me, or agreed to the work, OK, I will sit for you. In either case, the sitter chooses the soul-atmosphere or persona to project, and is in conversation with painter and viewer, even when not facing us directly.
In a figure painting, the balance of choice and control tips toward the painter, who makes the theatrical choices of pose and costume. Here, too, the exchange of money often goes in the opposite direction: the painter pays the sitter, who may be a professional model, or friend or lover or family member. Here, take off your clothes. Or: Put on these robes. Lift your veil thus.
We know that the figure painting may be staged, and yet as viewers we enter into it in the same way we enter the world of a good fictional narrative: we believe it utterly. When we see Sargent’s statuesque self-intoxicator, we wonder: How often does she do this? Where is everyone? Where is she going? How can we get some?
IX. Art and Alchemy
9. John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925), Fumée d’Ambre Gris (Smoke of Ambergris), 1880. Oil on canvas, 64 1/2 x 45 1/2 x 3 in. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts
Critics have said that this is a painting more about the art of painting than about what is going on in the picture. Sargent himself writes to a friend: “a little picture I perpetrated in Tangier…the only interest in the thing was the color.” (Curatorial notes of the Clark Art Institute)
But I think that quote sells the painting short. There is more going on in Fumée d’Ambre Gris than the brilliant brushwork with a restricted palette. The solitude and ritual stillness of the woman, the strong indication of an interior life, the nature of the incense–its provenance and its intoxicating and erotic effects–all point to the evocation of a particular moment in the confluence of the mysteries of the sensual, erotic, religious, and material worlds.
I don’t know exactly which pigments he used, but in general the materials of painting come from the crudest animal, vegetable, and mineral origins:
burnt bones (Bone Black),
charred wood (Carbon Black)
pressed plant roots (Madder Lake)
beetles (Carmine Lake) (Vermilion)
oxidized iron (Prussian blue)
ground rocks (Malachite) (Lapis Lazuli)
urine of cows fed on mango leaves (Indian Yellow)
natural earth (Green Earth) (Raw Umber) (Van Dyke Brown)
clay (yellow Ochre)
Mixed with water or oils pressed from flax (linseed) or resins distilled from pine trees (turpentine) these colors are applied––with a brush made of badger or rabbit hair, or a quill pen, or a metal tipped pen or engraver––to wood or cloth or paper which has been treated with glue made from rabbit skin.
For me, Fumée d’Ambre Gris is all about the painter as alchemist: how Sargent’s genius transforms humble matter, and how the alchemy of work makes the work of art, which in this case evokes one of the strangest of all forms of natural alchemy: ambergris.
Using matter as a tool to deliver the even baser matter of pigment onto a ground made of cloth and animal glue, the painter brings all the elements of the imagination into being.
Afterword: What Museums Really Do
I’ve stopped seeing the things in my house, except when some change happens–a new slant of light, an outrageous flower suddenly blooming beside something, a new friend to show things to. All the senses acclimate, even touch, and when we dress in the morning we soon cease to feel the clothes, unless they are out of the ordinary. The nose gets accustomed to a scent, even ambergris; the ears stop hearing the opera singer in the attic, the hum of the house current.
The marvelous thing about going to visit a painting in a museum, or in the collection of a friend, is precisely that we don’t see the object all the time. The museum, or the collector, perform a favor: they hide works of art away from us most of the time. This is why we should not covet the pieces in a museum, but only love them. Collections keep the works rare and unfamiliar, so that when we make our eventual pilgrimage we can gaze with clarity and fierce attention.
An early version of this essay appeared in the on-line journal, The Arts Fuse.
Jennie Erin Smith
“Something indescribably elemental: A history of ambergris”
TLS September 10, 2012
A Natural (and Unnatural) History
Chicago, University of Chicago Press. 2012
Robert (Henry) Clarke
“The Origins of Ambergris”
Latin American Journal of Aquatic Mammals
* * *
THE PARTHENON FRIEZES. WATERCOLOR PAINTINGS by WENDY ARTIN.
At Gurari Collections, 460 Harrison Avenue, Boston, MA. Through January 1, 2012.
Mastery and Beauty.
Interesting art is everywhere these days–heartbreaking art, art that changes the way we look at the world. Concern with beauty, though, is rare. Utter mastery is rare. This exhibition is a breathtaking combination of mastery and beauty. It contains small polychrome still lifes; small sepia nudes; and life-size paintings of the Parthenon Friezes. The whole collection is so good I really shouldn’t say anything except to urge you to see it. But I can’t resist talking a bit about the frieze paintings.
Wendy Artin is a classical painter, figurative, representational, and intensely textured. The watercolors in this exhibition are the product of two years devoted to the Parthenon Friezes now in the British Museum. The friezes, showing a sacred Athenian procession, were completed in 438 BC, and attributed to the sculptor Phidias. They originally decorated the top of the inner chamber of the temple; too high to be seen easily, they were also partly hidden by columns. Perhaps this obscurity was fitting, given the holiness of the place and the subject.
Artin is not just about representation. Her paintings bring up all sorts of questions about the complexities of beauty. How do we build up beauty from matter? What happens to beauty over time? Does an object lose its beauty when time wears away at it?
The men and horses emerging from the rough marble background in Artin’s paintings beckon to us. Trying to see them better, we approach. Then as we lean even closer, that uncanny moment happens: we suddenly see the painting not as a large stone bas relief, but as brushstrokes and pools of dried pigment adhering to the rough nubbled surface of the paper.
This uncanny hinge occurs with all art, or all art that we can get close enough to, but in Artin’s work the representational mastery is so superb that it seems to happen more often than usual. We sway forward, wanting a more intimate look at the ancient horsemen and their ancient mounts, and then we lose them.
Shifting back and forth through these levels of perception is like the visual oscillation of optical illusions, and brings us back to the mystery of painting: how brushstrokes not only evoke but seem to become the things they are striving to represent. I do mean to assign a sense of purpose to the strokes themselves. It feels as though they have will.
The interplay between perceived image and puddles of dried pigment also recalls that jockeying between resolution and enlargement that we find in photographs or my old field of photomicrographs. The more we enlarge the negative, the closer we get to seeing not the desired image, but the silver particles of the photographic emulsion. Here, in these watercolors, it is as though we are looking at the elementary particles of art.
The Matter of the Medium
Like the long-gowned entranced medium in the Victorian parlor who acts courier for messages between the worlds of the living and the dead, the artist’s medium also sits between worlds – internal and external. This sort of medium is a hunk of matter, stone waiting to be hewn, or pigments and paper waiting to be combined. This medium acts as the ground for construction where the private thoughts and visions of the artist are translated into concrete physical forms that can be seen by others.
Artin is doing a further translation, here, transforming carved stone into the visual language of paper and pigment, showing us this strange conversion from mineral to vegetable, crystalline to fluid–an uncannily tactile achievement.
Marble is the durable stuff. Yet time has shown us the vulnerability of that marble, even if the scale of that time is millennial. As for paper, any madman could rip these works on paper to shreds in minutes. The paper Artin uses for most of these works is the strong and beautiful Indian Khadi paper, handmade from long-fibered cotton rag. For the moment the papers of her paintings are intact, and show to us the ruined stones. I am reminded of the old conversation between Scissors, Paper, and Stone, so old that it is a children’s game, where paper wraps stone, stone smashes scissors, scissors cut paper.
Artin’s process is unusual. Even with these vast and complex equestrian friezes, she does not sketch her subject first. In fact, she says:
“While painting these paintings, I tried very hard to do everything in one wash–i.e. while the paint was wet and on the surface, add water, wick up the wash with a dryer brush, and therefore remove pigment for lighter areas, or add more dense watercolor for darker areas.”
Artin tells me she was consciously avoiding doing multiple washes, because a single wash often misses some places, leaving behind little air bubbles. These can help the paintings to breathe, by introducing tiny bits of light into the darker areas. If you go over a quick wash even one more time, you lose these illuminations.
By omitting any underlying line drawing, by flooding the paper with the wash and removing the St. Petersburg Ivory Black pigment in some places, working it deeply into the fibers of the paper surface in others, Artin captures the way the light is reflected by stones, and as she does so the sculpted marble horses and their men come to life. You can see her at work in an excellent documentary film.
Time and Beauty: Ruins
Why do we find ruins so beautiful? Is it nostalgia for a vanished age sweeter than the present? Do ruins give us a pleasurable sadness, a frisson of mortality without the terror? Do they inspire us to a bit of willful dabbling in the shallows of gloom, without the full oppression of despair? Or do ruins remind us of the beauty of impermanence and the pathos of things?
Would the real Parthenon friezes please us as much if they were intact, or does the work of time and the elements add to our fascination with them?
We find certain ruined buildings or statues romantic, but when our roof springs a leak it is a disaster. Perhaps we like being reminded of decay as long as it is far enough away that we don’t become afraid.
Is our pleasure in ruins at all related to the pleasure we take in the tragedies of drama and fiction where we so “identify” with the hero or heroine that all our emotions are awakened, all our adrenaline and other neurotransmitters, but still, at some subconscious level we keep our distance, knowing that we are on the real side of the fictional chasm. Despite our racing pulse, we are safe. Roller coasters work like this on us, with a much narrower spectrum of emotions and chemistry.
The odd thing is that a ruined statue can still be beautiful, so too a fictional character in tragic dissolution. But in a close friend or family member, dissolutions brought about by age may not charm us, and with physical ruin we say the person “had been” a great beauty. In fact we recoil if the physical degradation or decay is too great.
Presence and Absence
Artin paints the presence of absence. That is, she paints every gouge of time and water, every dappled break. Sometimes we see a congregation of horses’ legs, but the back and riders are gone. Sometimes just a mane is left, a horse’s head, a rider’s knee.
When we look at the real friezes, in the museum, we tend to skip over the missing parts, where it is just stone and the carving no longer exists. These eroded parts become background, and I think we bracket it, in the sense of gazing around it, in order to see the marvelous carved parts that are still present. But when Artin devotes as much of her gaze to the ruined parts, then we are lured into looking. We cannot disregard them, because she is showing us their presence and their importance. By bringing the absence into the presence Artin is reminding and instructing us to consider what is missing. As she extends her gaze to them, so must we. And how beautifully she paints the various textures of the stone that has been worked not by man, but by the elements.
The Time of the Gaze
Why would one undertake such a project? I think it’s not solely for the final product, that gorgeous translation of marble onto paper. Rather it has to do with patience and looking and paying fierce attention. In making these paintings Artin looked at the friezes for two years. She may know their contours better than anyone alive. Working this way, without pencil, entrains the endurance of the gaze. Painting can lead to the deepest sort of knowing.
***This review originally appeared on The Arts Fuse on November 17, 2011, as: “Fuse Visual Arts Review: Wendy Artin––Translating Marble onto Paper” by Grace Dane Mazur
Pete Baker and her Gardens
(Memorial Service, Friends Meeting House, Westport Massachusetts. July 28, 2012)
Many of you knew Pete when she made her first vegetable garden at 670 Drift Road. I didn’t know her then, but Geraldine says: the previous owner had graveled the space, so that Pete had to start by making her own dirt––She taught herself about composting, organic gardening, and then she did it… At 29 Drift Road, Pete’s gardening went into overdrive. It was all she wanted to do. She resented all other interruptions (winter, visitors) that kept her from it.
I first met Pete in the early 1990s when she came over to the church we had recently moved into to see if she wanted the de-consecrated outhouse in our back yard. It was listing and dilapidated; of course she wanted it. Outbuildings of any kind, small and large, were an important part of her gardens. The fact that she wanted this, of course, made it seem suddenly desirable to me, and thus impossible to part with. So we kept the outhouse, and invited her to dinner.
When I told Pete I wanted to redesign the garden at the church, she took me in hand and taught me many things, among them the virtues of well-composted cow manure. (I was so impressed with her view of manure that I ordered a truckload of it to be delivered on my fiftieth birthday). While gardening, she taught me that nothing is fixed or frozen into place––every boulder, no matter how large, can be pried up with a long enough crow bar—and also every boundary can be transcended. When she saw the plans I had drawn up, she said, “Oh no! You have to leave enough of a grassy space in the middle for a couple to lie down and…couple!”
Pete was immensely generous with her time, and we went collecting in her sky blue truck to Sylvan’s and Haskell’s and Peckham’s and Avant Gardens. She taught by instruction, showing me how to free up potbound roots before planting, how deep to dig, when to give something a good whack––but she also taught by example: each of her gardens: from the small entrance terrace with the old bricks tracing the path around the circle of vinca with the pink rose; to the lacy mauve meadow rue along the walk by the house, to the grapes climbing up the arbor by the deck, or the crimson poppies in front of the greenhouse––each had a different mood, produced a different joy.
Outbuildings were part of the gardens, and so, too were stone walls. She cleared the stream and its stone channels so that the watercress would flourish. Further into the woods, she created the ponds, with their rushes and grasses and cardinal flowers. And deeper in the forest always she had woods-clearing and path-grooming projects. Sometimes Turk’s Cap lilies would appear where she had cleared the understorey. Again, boundaries didn’t stop her, and she was always game for a trespass into neighboring land. The whole territory was part of her canvas for bringing forth beauty.
A glorious example of Pete’s trespassing of boundaries, and also definitions was her award-winning exhibit at the New England Flower Show in 1992. It was, of course, A Cellar Hole. Her love of old buildings and history always led her to take pleasure in linking then and now. (She would often puzzle us by giving us directions to “Turn left at the old mill,” meaning “Turn left at the place where the mill once was, but now you see only undifferentiated forest.”)
She later described the effect of the Flower Show exhibit in her book, Collecting Houses:
The ruins were too far gone to know what the farmhouse had looked like. All that remained was a section of chimney, the fireplace hearth, and a stone-lined foundation.
At first, she writes, she had been totally dismayed by the Boston Expo Center, with its cement floor, black cloth backdrop, fluorescent lights, and ceiling of corrugated metal. But then she and her colleagues put the stones in place, and “By the end of the day, the dark and light shapes of the stones had become linked together like an architectural amulet. Delighted, I poked tiny plants of violets and ferns in between the stones, then spread the artifacts in the cellar hole––pieces of blue and white earthenware, a ceramic jug, charred pieces of wood, broken bottles, a rusted axe, the sole of a shoe, animal bones, old quahog shells––things that defined a long-ago time.”
For Pete, such things were the core of narrative. She could construct any number of stories from them.
I went to that flower show and when I came to her startling construction, I didn’t think it was an exhibit. It felt as though it had been there forever, and the whole Boston Expo Center had grown up around it. It was a ruin, half covered with autumn leaves, bits of an old garden still persisting:vinca, laurel, and white lilac; columbine and wild geranium. It felt as though you weren’t supposed to be there––as though in order to have stumbled on this old cellar hole in the woods, you would have committed a trespass. And yet, it felt like the right thing to do. It was a necessary trespass.
Like every one of Pete’s gardens, it was a world, hidden and public and still strangely intimate. Deep and beautiful and full of the mysteries.