Saturday Smile

Saturday Smile

An abstract gets close scrutiny.

Photographed at the San Francisco Museum of Art, early 1950’s for LIFE Magazine.

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Here’s to 2014, and more mixarella. All my sparkliest wishes to you for the year ahead, and thank you for reading.

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Let’s fade away the duller shade of living …

Wake the Day

One of the men in my neighbourhood heard I studied fine arts. He’s in a band that was doing a fundraiser for cancer. He asked, if he provided the supplies, could I create a painting of the album’s title song that could be auctioned off at the CD release party? As he was very persistent, I eventually agreed. Then I tinkered around on Facebook, as one is wont to do when the clock is ticking, while listening to the song, by After Autumn, which is sort of sweet and sad and ultimately about not giving up.

I had no idea what to put on that blank canvas staring at me. I thought of a tree with the lyrics branching out of it. Then I realized that I’d rather do a portrait, which made me imagine a face that was open, strong, determined, and neither smiling nor frowning. Something Mona Lisa-esque. I remembered a profile picture of a Facebook friend, which I downloaded and began replicating. While staring at the tiny digital image on my screen, I gave the wonderfully expansive, egg-shell white canvas some of the broad strokes of my friend Silvia’s distinctive features: her resolute jaw and cheekbones; Jackie O wide eyes; generous, enigmatic mouth; and broad swish of eyebrows. The photo of Silvia I had chosen pleased me greatly as it had high contrasts of light and shadow, just like Silvia’s personality. She’s a tough kitten with a big heart and wicked sense of humour — a feisty, dark, cerebral beauty.

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Please excuse the thumb I rely on it for proportioning.

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Yes, the midcentury glass bowl was full of paint by the end.

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Ah, red.

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I finished the painting on stage with the band at their CD release party, as they played “Wake the Day.” The lyrics are painted in her hair. I hope you like it, dear reader.

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So it happened AGAIN. Stayed in the spaceship this year. Will be back to save the universe from dullness, soon.

“C’est vrai. Voilá quelqu’un qui sent comme moi. (It is true. There is someone who feels as I do).”

Edgar Degas, born Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas, in Paris, France, today in 1834 (d. 27 September 1917.) A superb draftsman, especially identified for his sinuous and beautiful studies of ballet dancers. Ever the observer, his work also caught the dance of the more mundane: capturing a complexity of moods and movement in parts of everyday life. Here is one of my favourites:

'Laundresses Carrying Linen in Town,' Edgar Degas, 1878, oil.

‘Laundresses Carrying Linen in Town,’ Edgar Degas, 1878, oil.

As well as his raw and intriguing self-portrait he did in 1863, especially compared to his self-portrait painted almost 10 years before.

Edgar Degas "Self Portrait," 1863, oil on board. Edgar Degas "Self Portrait," 1855, oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

Edgar Degas “Self Portrait,” 1863, oil on board. Edgar Degas “Self Portrait,” 1855, oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Although a difficult and somewhat formidable ‘old curmudgeon’ personality, I do love this story: In his late years Degas was chatting in his studio with one of his few friends (and admirer,) English painter Walter Richard Sickert. They decided to visit a café. Young Sickert got ready to summon a fiacre, a horse-drawn cab. Degas objected. “Personally, I don’t like cabs. You don’t see anyone. That’s why I love to ride on the omnibus-you can look at people. We were created to look at one another, weren’t we?”

“An artist can show things that other people are terrified of expressing.”

― Louise Bourgeois

Louise Bourgeois photographed by James Hamilton, in 1992, with her piece Arch of Hysteria.

Louise Bourgeois photographed by James Hamilton, in 1992, with her piece Arch of Hysteria.

The trailblazing French-American modern artist and prolific contemporary sculptor Louise Joséphine Bourgeois, who died three years ago today in New York City at age 98, left a towering artistic legacy (astonishingly, in the latter part of her life). I love her for many reasons: for her bravery in subject matter and scale; her passion and wit for promoting women in the art world; her courage and conviction (in her 90s) to speak up for equality in the LGBT community; and her energy and drive to teach, inspire and galvanize young talent. But, most of all, I love her for her most recognizable and famous body of work, Maman (Mother, 1999), which is made from recast bronze, and displays an arachnid-like sculpture with marble eggs in its sac. The sculpture is one of many, placed throughout the world, measuring over 30 ft high and over 33 ft wide.

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Photographed in her studio in NY by Dimitris Yeros in 2009.

Mme. Bourgeois explains:
“The Spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. My family was in the business of tapestry restoration, and my mother was in charge of the workshop. Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitoes. We know that mosquitoes spread diseases and are therefore unwanted. So, spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother.  … The spider is a repairer. If you bash into the web of a spider, she doesn’t get mad. She weaves and repairs it.”

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Outside Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain.

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It always makes me pause, or at least try to pause, to react accordingly to all misunderstood creatures. I am always telling Mads and my niece and my nephews that there is no reason to be afraid of spiders — that they are wonderful and creative creatures that eat flies and mosquitoes, which are dirty things that may bite us and make us miserable. I tell them, hopefully convincingly, that the larger they are, the less harmful they are likely to be. 

Recently, however, while cooking, I felt the sensation of something tickling my leg. Absentmindedly, I glanced down and proceeded to do the most wild and levitational Zulu dance ever, all without making a sound so as not to alert Mads, who later wandered into the kitchen while I was feigning calm and vacuuming up the gargantuan carcass that I had evidentially slapped to death. Naturally, I didn’t want her to see that I had murdered the so-called “wonderful creature.” Later, as I emptied the vacuum I found my not-so-Ripley-self whistling “Taps” in an attempt to assuage the creeping, crawly guilt I had begun to feel. Sorry, Maman.

“Art is a guarantee of sanity. That is the most important thing I have said.” 

Louise Bourgeois

Alas, we will not hear Ms. Bourgeois talk again, but her work will continue to speak, or yell, in its own power.

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Earth Beings: Debs

Even if you’ve never heard of the Henry Brooks Adams saying that “Friends are born, not made,” you’ve probably experienced that moment of instant kinship with someone new. It’s a remarkable phenomenon that most aptly explains Debs and me. I met her in Cape Town, early 2004, and from that moment onwards, I do not remember when we weren’t friends. You, dear reader, met her briefly in my first post. Debs hails from a part of the world that’s warmly etched into my fondest childhood memories: Port Elizabeth. “P.E.,” as it is known by locals, is a sprawling, sunny South African seaside port town where the air always smells like sea salt, thatch, Sparletta Cream Soda and braais. It’s also home to some of South Africa’s great sport and creative talents.  Debs, being the latter, thrived in the city of her provenance, and enjoyed the freedom it gave this spirited, artistic eaglet, who grappled with reconciling her rebellious, ever-curious and wild side with a Catholic sensibility and deep love of her family. As Debs says, in her distinctive, 1820s English settler-flecked accent:

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“Spent a lot of my youth trawling junk stores for furniture, clothes and quirky bits of crap. I was diving head first into boxes of second-hand clothes in flea-infested shops in Main St. (P.E.) from the tender age of about 14. ‘Dead peoples clothes probably,’ sighed a friend of mine’s mum once.”

Debs’ uncanny eye for beautiful form and colour is matched by her ability to attract and inspire artistic friends. So as a young rock chick out on the town with her similarly feathered friends, she’s periodically flown through P.E.’s thrift and consignment shops to amass a collection of treasures.

“I obsessively started collecting hats at one point. I only have a few left as the moths got hold of them. Storage was often a problem as the collections grew larger. My retro crap was collected before it was even called retro. Old Soda Streams, coloured glass ashtrays and vases — people just didn’t want this stuff and I did.”

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In one loud P.E. club, she chanced upon a compelling objet d’ affection with a large warm heart on its sleeve, mop of blonde hair and a disarming twinkle in his eye. His name was Denis. After Debs came back from two years of exploring the world by herself, she married him. After a few years in P.E., Debs and Denis moved back down the coast to Cape Town in the early 1990s. They bought a “whaler’s cottage,” built in 1902, that was created with stone from the surrounding Cape mountains. Our eagle was ready to settle down on this unique rocky perch overlooking the False Bay of St. James/Muizenberg. She gave mixarella a tour of her stunning and homey nest.

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“In 1991, I swapped Denis’ much-loved faux leather couch (truly hideous) for six retro chairs, Scandinavian style. Denis was devastated but later, being the master of embellishment, he brags about ‘his bargain of the century.’ Then again, I spent an entire month’s salary on that Art Nouveau clock that’s pictured here on top of the kitchen cupboard and was made by my great uncle.”

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“My favourite pieces in my home are mostly the ones that have been made by an assortment of talented friends. Photographer Pippa Hetherington, potter Tessa Gawith of the Pot Spot, artist Jackie Jones (artworks on wall), sculptor and sometimes recluse, Dominique Rocco, artist and collaborator Arabella Caccia, and decor artist Janet Fryer. As well as the many cushion covers, throughout the house, by the prolific South African textile designer and illustrator, Heather Moore.”

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“I love old fashion mixed with a bit of now. I have a thing for Persian rugs and old wardrobes and, of course, old mirrors. The more time-beaten, the better. The mirror backsplash in my kitchen behind the basin was made by my very talented old school friend, Ms. Fryer.

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“Having children curbed the obsessive collecting phase, and I have been through a bit of a 10-year lull. However, I think the bug has bitten once again. This time it’s for collecting old South African pottery from the ’50s, Drostdy Ware, Lucia Ware, and the English and American versions of Vermont.”

“My Beswick ducks were found separately in three different junk stores in different cities. Each of them is a different size. Amazing, ey? Now I have a full set in the same style and colour.”

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“For the dining room wall, the fiercely creative Jen Mason roped me into painting it for an Earthcote shoot. Inspired by Paul Smith. maybe?”

The colours are also a nod to the famed Muizenberg brightly coloured changing huts that line the beach in front of her house where Debs swims each dawn. As she notes, “With all the grannies at the St. James tidal pool. This marks the start of my day and a coffee at a local coffee shop before I start work.”

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Her work is in photography, which is more a vocation than a labour. When she is not “working” at capturing people, places, lives and faces, she is visualizing and collaborating on art and further installments for exhibits. When Debs sets out each day, she is attired in her own offbeat expression of elegance with a hint of her past punk influences.

“My wardrobe still has a resemblance of junk store finds from my youth. My Nan (grandmother) made my mom’s clothes when she was younger. I still wear some of them (seen hanging on wardrobe door.)  I am trying to be grownup and add more neutral colours but cannot throw away my colourful past. My new (read: not second-hand) pieces are mostly from my good friend, designer Claire Kingan Jones, who recently moved to New Zealand.”

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Even at the end of the day, this bird likes to keep busy. Around the house, needles and wool are kept within stretching distance. “There is always a handmade blanket on the couch or bed in my house. My youngest, Jed (now 17), sometimes when he was little, would prefer to fall asleep to the soft clack of my needles rather than a story. I have great excuses for my knitting —my grey hair now and our little precious grandson, Luke (born to eldest son, Rip, below right, who lives in Johannesburg and is finishing medical school). Jed, below left, is an aspiring musician in a band called The Oxygen Thieves; their video, ‘Under the Sky,’ was filmed in his neighbourhood.”

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“Sun-downers” and weekends are spent on the expansive front deck, which feels almost cantilevered over the False Bay cocktail of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. Below the deck is the garden, a seaside, rocky terrain strewn with an almost eccentric installation of flotsam and jetsam found by Denis, Debs and their boys, Rip and Jed, on the beaches all along the South African coast.

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“Those weird pieces of junk in the garden are Denis’ art collections. Flotsam from the beach. His collections of African heads keep a watchful eye on his collections of cacti. We always did have different taste … as you know.”

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I do know. Once, Debs and Denis called upon my critical eye to give an honest opinion about a new painting (above) that Denis had acquired. Debs and I struggled to contain our mirth, but once Denis explained how it made him think of surfing and being young and free and how the moon looks just like that when you’re on your board in the water, it became impossible not to fall in love with the acquisition. It’s always the response that gives art its meaning — just like Debs and Denis give to life. This sums up how I feel each time I am with them. Like her marvelous finds, they delight me and I want to keep them around forever.

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