Category Archives: how to live

Quilts by Men

During a visit to Civil War sites in Winchester, Virginia, I learned that convalescing Confederate veterans were encouraged to work on quilts.  The wartime headquarters of Stonewall Jackson (1861-62) had such a quilt on the General’s personal bed, made by an amputee.

Traditionally women’s work, quilting was recognized for its therapeutic benefit to wounded soldiers, who were undoubtedly suffering from PTSD, as well as physical injuries.  Artists and crafters know well the meditative zone one enters while immersed in repetitive, creative work.  We forget to eat, we forget to stop working, we forget the world.

Flowerchild: Then and Now

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I walk daily on a path through a virgin prairie near where I live.  The blooms change week by week, and I photographed some of them, to preserve their image before they withered and stepped aside for the next wave of blossoms.

I was listening to the sound track of “Forrest Gump”, which has songs from the late 60’s and early 70’s, the music of my childhood and teen years.  “Volunteers” by Jefferson Airplane was playing:

“Come on now we’re marching to the sea
got a revolution got to revolution… “

I thought about the flower children of the 60’s, calling for revolution, and the  reference to “marching to the sea”, which calls up Sherman’s march to the sea, from the Civil War.  I am currently reading Sick From Freedom:  African American Illness and Suffering During The Civil War and Reconstruction by Jim Downs.  Mr. Downs revises the glossy view of the emancipation of the African slaves in the United States, and documents the catastrophic wave of privation and disease which met the newly emancipated bondsmen and women, because of medical ignorance and administrative incapacity.  Thousands upon thousands of former slaves died of exposure, starvation and disease following emancipation.  Which is obviously not to say that they were better off in slavery; in fact, the fear of that argument kept the grim facts from coming to light for generations.  It is important that this story is finally being told.

It may seem odd to make a jump from beautiful wildflowers to catastrophic demographic displacement, while in the midst of a gorgeous meadow on a summer day, but that’s how my mind runs.  Tearing down, I thought,  is quick and easy; building up is slow and torturous.  As I listened to the song calling for political change, I felt glad that the cultural revolution of my youth did not escalate to a violent overthrow of the U.S. government.  This sounds simplistic; but as I watch social/political upheavals around the world, and see our country use “shock and awe” as a “defense” policy, I worry.  Change is essential; people are suffering under cruel dictatorships, but as with the prairie, the return of life following a scorched-earth policy takes generations; the cost is terrible and the results are always mixed.

My little photographic record (which led to this line of thought) began with seeing a flower I’d never seen before, a few days earlier.  Since I didn’t have my cellphone/camera that day, I took a mental photo and did a little sketch in watercolor while I was at my teaching job at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Fay, an avid gardener in my class, didn’t recognize it, either, and suggested that I take it to Plant Information, where they were able to identify it for me:    Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea Purpurea).  The description in the book said it requires a “rich, well-developed environment.”  In other words, it only grows where generations of untouched prairie plants have been able to flourish and propogate and create the right conditions; it’s not just going to pop up on a foreclosed subdivision where people stopped mowing the grass for a year or two.  Which explains why I’ve never seen it before; it doesn’t grow just anywhere.
The custodians of Gallery Park, the beautiful jewel which contains patches of untouched prairie, utilize controlled burns to maintain the natural cycle of destruction and rebirth that allows the prairie to flourish.  How do we replicate a “controlled” burn in the world of politics and nation building?  Now, there’s the challenge.

Free Yourself: It’s Passover!

May this Passover bring freedom and redemption to all who are enslaved.  May we find ways to free ourselves from the constricts of mind and attitude that bind us.  May we be open to new ways of solving the problems that face our world.

Looking For Wildness

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If you live in an urban or suburban area, wildness is hard to find.  I found it at Gallery Park in the Glen, a recently developed suburb that was created when the Glenview Naval Air Base was decommissioned.  Along the verge and in between all the runways, naturalists found original, untouched Illinois prairie.  Amazingly, in our era of greed and despoilment, environmentalists successfully lobbied for a set-aside of this untouched biodiversity, and the Glen planners preserved a pristine wetland/prairie area in the heart of the development.

I have found that I can briskly walk its paved paths and crushed gravel trails, which loop through neck-high grasses, for an hour without repeating my path.  I see:  a sandhill crane, many ducks, egrets, little birds that tweet up from the path, masses of purple asters, wild roses, weeping willows, oaks.

Blair Kamin, the Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic, writes in today’s paper:  “Chicago’s high-toned Latin motto, ‘Urbs in Horto’ (City in a Garden), makes it sound as though the expansive open spaces of the city’s lakefront extend to every corner of the city.  They don’t.”

Kamin goes on to quote Perry Duis, a University of Illinois at Chicago historian, speaking about the dearth of green spaces planned into post-Great Fire Chicago:  “The older industrial areas were so jammed by the expansion of factories that any kind of open space was considered to be sort of a luxury.   It’s just logical… Chicago is the most thoroughly capitalistic city there is.”

As protestors mass on Wall St. and LaSalle St. in revolt against rampant corporate greed, it is well to bear in mind the environmental results of greed, in its most basic impact on our communities.  If you can find yourself some wildness, embrace it and appreciate it, and fight for it.

“Knittivists” Repairing The World

There is a wonderful project called “Tikkun Tree”, which is organizing fiber artists to contribute knitted, crocheted, embroidered and sewn leaves and doves to a fiber olive tree.  The tree will be a symbol of peace and cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians.  It is inspired by  “the courageous and remarkable efforts of Jewish and Palestinian citizens and activists in Israel and Diaspora who have been working toward peaceful coexistence” and also by “the many recent knittivist community needlework projects, including the pink tank, knitnotwar 1,0o0 Project , Knit a River, and the Red Sweater Project“.

I can embroider and sew, I think it will be fun to foliate!  If you want to participate, send your leaves to:

The TikkunTree Project
P.O. Box 2088
Philadelphia, PA 19103

I love to paint olive trees.  Here are some works which include olive trees from my portfolio:

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Creative Collaboration As It Should Be

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The current exhibit at Fill In The Blank Gallery, entitled “Habitual Growth”, is an example of a fully integrated, successful collaboration by three talented artists:  Alexis Ortiz, Julia Gootzeit and Katie Schofield.  Together, they created an environment that is so symbiotic, all the objects seem to just have grown in the gallery.  This is no small feat, considering the materials used:  ceramic vessels, nest-like shapes crocheted from plastic grocery bags, cascades of keys, little dyed, felted balls, stripes of soil and ristras of red ceramic carroty thingies.

The artists recycle, re-use, re-purpose.  All of the recycled objects bring their own stories to the table, and the artists cast them in a new context, layering different perspectives.  The result is a rich, fresh, intriguing mix that comes together incredibly well.  The exhibit will be up at 5038 N. Lincoln Avenue until Aug. 20.  It’s well worth a visit– check the gallery website for hours.

I am preparing for a two-person show next spring with artist Harriet Kohn, at PerficalSense Studio.  We discussed the idea of whether  to collaborate on work together, or just show our independent, though complementary, work.  Seeing the seamless collaboration created by Alexis, Julia and Katie raised the bar for us.  Now we have to decide:  pas de deux,  or ensemble?  This is where my inner elementary school teacher is saying, ” Judy, you’re not a team player.”  We’ll see what happens!

Re-Purposing Hubcaps for Art

"Birth of Earth", re-purposed hubcap art by Judith Joseph for Landfill Art Project

Back in December of 2008, artist and gallery owner Ken Marquis contacted me and asked me to participate in the “Landfill Project”.  At the time, he had over 100 international artists on board; by now, the project has grown to over 800 artists!

The idea was to salvage hubcaps, clean them up and give them to artists to have their creative way with them.  I’ll never forget the day my hubcap arrived in the mail.  There was much laughter in my house, as I pulled it from the box and tried to explain to my family that it was going to be an art piece.

I pulled together a scrap of silk I had hand-painted as an experiment, brass foil and wire, and went to work.  The silk looked, to me, like the roiling soup of primordial creation, at the beginning of the universe.  So, I thought about Earth being born, like a baby, gasping for its first breath, emerging from the amniotic caul.  I thought of my mother, who emerged from birth wearing her birth caul “like an undershirt”, which her father proclaimed to be a sign of good luck.  (He was right; so far, at age 84, she’s had a very lucky, happy life.  I can only wish good luck to our Mother Earth, who could use some!)

Ken Marquis’ idea sounded kind of crazy at first, but if you peruse the gallery of his hupcap art, you will be amazed at the inventiveness of artists from around the world, in re-imagining these metal disks.  The take-away message for me is, why don’t we approach all of our environmental problems with this kind of creative energy?

Landfill Art was just profiled in an AP article:  Hubcaps As Canvas:  Artists Turn Junk Into Jewels (where you can see my hubcap in slide #4).   Ken needs 150 more professional artists for the project– see application and the complete “Gallery of Metal Canvases” at the Landfill Art website.

“When This You See, Remember Me…”

In an antique store in Woodruff, Wisconsin, I came across a little album of autographs.  It had a well-worn velvet cover, and its contents told me that it was the property of Emelia Daw (nee Buchert), who received it in 1890 at the age of 15 years.  The last signature is in 1930, when Mrs. Daw (as she is addressed in the later  salutations) would have been 55 years old… the same age I am now.

All of the signers wrote “Dear Emelia (or Mrs. Daw)”, followed by a formulaic inscription.  Her “friend and teacher”, Marguerite Hill, wrote:

“Premeditate your speeches, words once flown

Are in the hearer’s power and not your own.”

On May 19th, 1898, Otto Brandt wrote, with creative spelling:  “Dear Emilie, If you love me as I love you know knife can cut our love in to.”

The pages are signed “Your Friend”, “Your brother”, “From Your Dear Melda” (her daughter, who signed twice).  The earliest signers wrote in German, so I can’t vouch for the contents, but I think it’s safe to assume they followed the convention of the day and wrote well-used tropes.  One of my favorite pages is from Emilia’s sister, who wrote in 1897:

“Sister Emelia,

The time is swiftly passing by,

When we must bid adieu,

We know not when we meet again,

So these lines I leave with you.”

In the corner margin, she wrote:  “Remember the pantry jokes”.  Salt in the sugar bowl?  What mischief did they cook up?!

I brought the album to the Chicago Botanic Garden, where I am teaching a class in calligraphy.  My students were fascinated with the beauty of the penmanship.  The writers used quill-shaped pens dipped in ink bottles, similar to the ones we use in class.  As the years went along, the writing became less formal, resembling Palmer cursive hand-writing.  One imagines that the manner of dress and speech also became less formal, as these German immigrants adjusted to their life in America and things became more modern.  Today, we can compose and publish with no pen, no paper, and no pants on.

They had names like Alma, Anna, Elsie, Hermann, Otto, Hazel.  They came from Wisconsin towns called Bancroft, Ellington, Hortonville, Greenville, Washburn, Appleton, Watertown and Stevens Point.  I think Emelia came from Hortonville, which made me laugh, because Hortonville was always my family’s synonym for “Nowhere” after our car broke down there on a family road-trip.

Emelia cherished this little album for at least 40 years.  As her friends married, she went back to their autograph page and inscribed it with their wedding date (e.g., Henry Riesenweber,  Ellington, March 11, 1891; married 13 Oct., 1901.)

Each of the inscriptions, with its ornate calligraphy or pencilled scrawl, conjure up a personality.  One can almost hear their voices.  As a person who embraces the fluidity and ease of technology, I find that calligraphy brings a slow pace and tactile quality to writing that is all but lost today.  In the careful forming of letters, the scratch of pen on paper, the  setting-up of ink between two scored lines from a metal pen, the content of the inscription (whether it be a saccharin couplet in an autograph book or a literary quotation) becomes a separate concern.  For Emelia’s friends, their inscription showed their devotion; writing was their gift.

I am learning Copperplate, a very formal and difficult style of calligraphy.  Here is my practice piece:

It humbles me that Marguerite Hill, Emelia’s “friend and teacher”, wrote better than I do, and she wrote that way ALL THE TIME.

East vs. West

Egret, by Regina Siske

“I am totally captivated by the beautiful, challenging art form of Asian brush painting.

‘The rhythmic ritual of grinding my own ink feels very meditative.  It prepares me to paint with a certain calm and presence, while connecting me to the daunting knowledge of a ritual that was practiced 4000 years ago.

‘The spirituality of Asian painting is an inspiration in its reverence for nature, from the most imposing mountain to the tiniest insect.  It is permeated with a spirit of gratitude– starting with the ink, brushes and hand-made papers.  It is said that an old brush is never thrown away, but reverently buried.

‘Studying with local teachers and international masters has been an evolution for me, as each teacher imparted his/her lessons of essential brush-strokes, which grew out of traditional Chinese calligraphy.  In the beginning, I tried to emulate the style of my teacher, in the old Asian tradition of learning.  Now, I am finding my own way, my own style and my own ‘landscapes’”….  Regina Siske, artist

Reggie is a friend of mine.  In the spirit of this blog, I have been helping her prepare for a solo exhibition of her paintings this summer, providing “technical support for a creative life.”  This took the form of designing her postcard and business card, photographing her work and digitally correcting the photos, uploading her work to a website, providing editorial feedback on her artist’s statement and bio, etc.

As I listened to her read her artist’s statement, I was struck by the dignity and beauty of her words, and how these qualities are mirrored in her paintings.  In an elegant way, she describes the humility and reverence with which one approaches Asian brush painting.  As a Hebrew calligrapher whose work is also tied to an ancient tradition, her words resonated with me.  For years, I refrained from signing my ketubahs (decorated Hebrew marriage contracts).  I felt that I was a link in a long chain of scribes who wrote Torahs and other sacred texts, anonymously.  The ketubah isn’t a sacred text; rather, it is a contract and a work of folk art, and eventually I put my stamp on it, creatively and appellatively.

More significantly, Reggie made me think about the contrast between an artistic tradition based on humility and gratitude, rather than ego and self-promotion.  As I work to make a living as an artist, I need to “get the word out” about my work.  Additionally, one of my professional gigs is art coach, to help others promote their work.

There is nothing wrong with all this horn-tooting, but at times it still makes me cringe.  I keep coming back to the bedrock of all this activity:  it is all about the work.  In other words, if we just put the work out there, it will speak for itself.  And, conversely, no matter how much hoopla we make, if the work isn’t speaking to people, all the noise will fall on deaf ears.

I think you will agree, when you regard Reggie’s work (above), that it speaks with a strong, gentle, lovely voice.  See more of Reggie’s work at her website, and August 5-30 at the Wilmette Public Library, 1242 Wilmette Avenue, Wilmette, Illinois.  Opening reception:  Friday, Aug. 5, 6-8 p.m.

Blogging and Art: For Love or Money?

While discussing social media and internet publishing, people often ask me how people make money off their blogs.  The New York Times has a very informative and detailed article on this topic, entitled My Blog Is Also Paying My Bills.

My favorite quote in the article comes from a financially successful blogger named Steve Pavlina.  His comment mirrors exactly what I tell people about being a professional artist:  “I tell people if they want to start a blog just to make money, they should quit right now,” Mr. Pavlina said. “You have to love it and be passionate about your topic.”

In discussions about getting art out in the world and making money from it, I always end up saying exactly the same thing.  In the end, an artist must be primarily motivated by the love of making art.  There is a lot he/she can do to promote the work and bring it to the marketplace, but in the end, there are a lot of easier ways to make money than being an artist.  In fact, almost any way is easier.  Sensible people don’t choose to make a living as an artist.  Art chooses you, and you learn to live with (and sometimes by) it.