After a sad spell, I return with good news, energy, and curiosity alight, thanks to the fabulous new book by art historian Samantha Noël which just arrived today. I made Respect quilt no. 7 for her, in fact, in memory of our time together during the years at Notre Dame and in admiration for her work. She works on Black artists and culture-creators of the Caribbean and the USA, and shows how their creations are interwoven with real aesthetic merit and political intention, despite being misunderstood or written off by the authorities. I’ve been waiting for my copy of the book so that I could pose the quilt with it, and the combination is even better than I imagined. I love the way the quilt’s vibe matches the message of the book! dancing people, tropical landscapes, a jaunty air of subversion–they are soulmates. Knowing it was destined to Samantha, I made this quilt particularly bright and cheerful. Do you see the visual reminder of the year it was made?*
A couple passages will show you why I’m such a fan of the book. It’s Samantha Noël’s ability to bring you right into the scene, to take the reader on a sensory journey to Trinidad or Cuba, to jangling cities and noisy jungles, where a luscious tropical heat shields a whole different world of smells, sights, and sounds and people with deep customs and histories linking them to Africa and the islands. Or to the glamorous world of Josephine Baker in the 1920s, when she took Paris by storm. (It is still sickening to remember that despite amazing talent, Baker was rebuffed at home in the USA, and that some part of her success was due to her concession to perform in the nude, with a male partner, a titillating danse des sauvages for white audiences). Noël’s focus on Black culture, island diasporas, and Southern histories is also a breath of new air into my Northwestern life, and one I’m eager to take in. Plus there’s a very intriguing photo of Maya Angelou on an album cover, as “Miss Calypso,” that I’m dying to explore!
Samantha Noël paints a complicated picture of the jamettes, or women who belonged to the poor of urban Trinidad, whose male counterparts were called badjohns. Instead of consigning them to the toxic influences that dominated their daily lives (abuse, sex work, poverty), she also notes the feisty, flamboyant style they embraced and the important role they played in the neighborhood. Famous jamettes–Yvonne “Bubulups” Smith and Gateway Elaine, for example–could be seen during street happenings of all kinds, from political protests to Carnival carousing. The consequences were sometimes dire, as the author notes:
“When Bubulups initiated a battle with her opponents, policemen arrested a naked and wounded Bubulups. … The difficulty of a jamette’s life is best summed up in Jean’s words: ‘Listen to me Dinah. … The road I walk had nothing. It didn’t have no money, no food. I didn’t have no mother. I didn’t have no father. All I ever wanted in my life was money and that is the only way I know how to do it. And that is how I am going down.’ … society branded them vulgar. As uncouth spectacles, their physiques gestured indiscretion against the repressive colonial order. Vulgar now became the pejorative agent in the sociocultural framing of these Black working-class women.
… she captures the attention of onlookers. Her monumental presence captured in the photograph also highlights her explicit control of the domain around her as she literally makes space, transforming the tropical, colonial territory as she traverses it.
Their movements were akin to the steel bands, whose rhythmic and melodic sound also emitted an unruly flair as the steel pan voiced the Black masses’ desire for acknowledgment of their political, social, and creative presence. The jamettes thus reveled in the music in their costumes, oscillating their hips with their arms akimbo, some waving the flags of their affiliated steel bands and others simply moving to the music while singing refrains from popular calypsos. If the jamettes were indeed primitive, it is because they were appropriating primitivity in their performance as a means of challenging the colonial order.” (pp. 133-135 in Tropical Aesthetics of Black Modernism, Duke University Press, 2021).
Select Honey Girl quilts will be on sale for one day only, March 10, 2021. Check it out!
photo of Maya Angelou album cover courtesy of: By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36595496
*the ox on the green & yellow square is a symbol of 2021: Year of the Ox according to the Chinese zodiac.
On left above, an oil painting by Aaron Douglas, Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery to Reconstruction, 1934, courtesy of the Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.
Hey everybody! Weird couple days, eh?
Since I’ve already expressed my view on the recent, lamentable events of the Trump regime, I’m ready to move on now. Got to cheer up. I began the day in the usual way.*
But today, before I sat down to work, I could not resist playing Janelle Monáe’s stirring anthem, “Turntables”— and sharing it here. I can’t be a pessimist and we can survive. You can survive. I LOVE THIS SONG! Click on that link. Get up out of that chair, listen to the song, look at the video, dance around, punch the air, punch the f****s, and get ready to move on, cause the tables bout to turn! 12 more days.
This song is totally in sync with “Respect” quilt no. 6 (above, in progress), which juxtaposes two vignettes in Sheila Bridges’ Harlem Toile de Jouy around the gorgeous silhouette of a proud Afro-wearing woman (designed by AphroChic), to show the power of art to change the world.
The square on the left features an elegant lady facing a maid holding a mirror. I added a gold crown on pink cotton, and a big bloom from a vintage bedsheet (thanks, Aunt Babe!) to lend an air of baroque excess to her coiffure. On the right there is the same scene minus the elegant lady, of the servant holding a mirror, but this one is printed on red. The mirror-holder is cut from the lady and juxtaposed to a strip of black and brown flames above a square of shiny red satin. Result? Instead of being a lady-in-waiting, the lady holding the mirror is now in charge. She’s an artist, a poet, mirroring the new reality of a world going up in flames.
Enjoy the inspiration, and get through the days as best you can, safely and kindly. We can do this!
* with “morning pages” and a conversation with great minds of my choice. This is a practice I began 23 weeks ago, inspired by J. Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way. Well, she urges the three morning pages. I added the great minds to think with. Today, I read around and found gems in Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit, Sir William Osler, Osler’s “Way of Life” and other Lectures, and Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air. Wonderful stuff.
Later on, I read the New York Times, and lamented briefly, despondently, about our nation’s leadership. Then I moved on. Now I’m going back to work, back to my art, and the community of sisterly souls (at least in imagination).
The smoky air out here is thick, smelly, and shows no sign of going away. It poses yet another obstacle to our desire for human companionship and makes everybody sad and anxious. We worry now about the fires devastating our neighbors to the south and east, and we all wish mightily for rain. Not only does the COVID-19 pandemic keep us from each other, we are now obliged to stay in with all the windows shut, lest we make ourselves sick by merely breathing the sooty air. Sigh.
But we survive nonetheless; my way is to create, always to create. Sewing these bright and colorful Respect Quilts brings loving thoughts to mind and helps keep things in perspective. This will pass. Clear skies will return some day and new growth will recommence in those scorched forests. We just have to abide the present, while waiting for better times to come.
In honor of Bob Marley, whose music does so much to help us get by, each Respect Quilt will feature three squares with little birds on them. As the lyrics to Marley’s song, “Three Little Birds” go:
Rise up this mornin’
Smiled with the risin’ sun
Three little birds
Pitch by my doorstep
Singin’ sweet songs
Of melodies pure and true
Sayin’, (“This is my message to you-ou-ou:”)
Singin’: “Don’t worry ’bout a thing
‘Cause every little thing gonna be all right.”
Singin’: “Don’t worry (don’t worry) ’bout a thing
‘Cause every little thing gonna be all right!”
Music heals. Put the music on, and forget your troubles for a while!
Lyrics courtesy of Last.fm Music | Copyright © 2020 CBS Interactive Inc. / All rights reserved.
Image of Bob Marley album cover by Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15336841
Well, that perfect moment of happiness has ended. Got some bad news yesterday about a couple cancers on my skin. So the perfect happiness is not so perfect anymore. But in a way that makes it all the more precious, because I realize how fleeting it is, to be alive and aware.
My first reaction from the doctor was actually relief. Relief that I am not endowed with some super powers that demand ever-increasing effort, nor am I immortal. I will not live forever, thank heavens! So I can be kinder to myself and say “No,” more often, and feel empowered to choose how to live, every minute of every day…. (It is also a reminder that my textile creations, via Honey Girl Books and Gifts, really are “limited editions”! haha, shop now!)
Oh well, live and learn. Hope your sense of happiness, perfect or not quite, remains intact as well… I’m going to do a bit of sewing now and listen to the fabulous Angelique Kidjo: guaranteed to flood my spirit with joy!
Pictured here is a happy client with one of the baby quilts I’ve been creating this spring, for some lovely new people who’ve arrived on the planet! Welcome, babies!
This morning is a time of quiet, happy anticipation over what lies ahead: the first meeting of a new group of kids who will form the “Write YOUR Story” team for Spring 2019! I only know two of the nine children enrolled, and as all teachers know, this moment before the names on the list take on the faces, voices and personalities of real people, is a thrilling time. You wonder who will be the silly, and who has a more serious turn of spirit, who will be a force of calm, which one will chat nonstop, and which one will remind you of still waters running deep. Of course, the same child can incarnate all those qualities, if you know them and see them long enough: we are all changeable creatures.
But the news was so awful today as most days; I almost felt numbed into sadness after reading the daily papers and weekly magazines we get here… Until something reminded me of my role, which is to inspire people, and pushed me to seek out a finer sort of sustenance. And so I returned to Mai-Mai Sze’s Tao of Painting for a refresher.
What Mai-Mai Sze reminded me is that the little group of writers will create a spirit, an esprit de corps, that is unlike any other. It will come from each of us and form a collective feeling. How that happens is a mystery to me. But I find it endlessly fascinating anyway and I know no-one like Mai-Mai Sze to guide such reflection. Here, then, are some of her key thoughts on the Ch’i:
“Ch’i is an elusive term, one whose meaning can be sensed without difficulty but which no simple definition can cover. … it has to be grasped through intuition.
Its significance is perhaps best suggested by its literal meaning of ‘breath,’ if one remembers the ancient concept of breath as soul and spirit.The Sanskrit prana, the Greek pneuma, and the Latin spiritus have the same import as ch’i, likewise ruah in Biblical Hebrew and the term nefesh, described by Zohar as the breath and substance of the Fourth Sphere, the world of physical existence. […]
The character ch’i is composed of ch’i (vapor) and mi (rice or grain). It is supposed to have meant originally the spirits distilled from rice or the vapor rising from the fermentation of rice or other grain. Ch’i (vapor) also stands for ‘clouds,’ and its old forms closely resemble bands or ribbons of clouds. […] the original form of the character was made up of three wavy strokes, indicating clouds or vapors. The three strokes, the shortest at the top, the longest at the bottom, suggest the form of an ascending spiral, the sign of circulation upward and One-ward. […]
Ch’i is manifest in men and things as breath and soul and spirit. In painting, Ch’i is both the creative resources of the painter and the essential vitality–spiritual, divine, and creative–that can be transmitted to a painting and perceived by the spectator. […]
That the meaning and importance of the concept did not essentially change may be seen in a passage from the XVIIIth-century painter Chang Kêng: ‘Ch’i yün may be expressed by ink, by brushwork, by an idea, or by absence of idea … It is something beyond the feeling of the brush and the effect of ink, because it is the moving power of Heaven, which is suddenly disclosed. But only those who are quiet can understand it.'”
–Mai-Mai Sze, The Tao of Painting pp. 52-55.
As you go about your day, stop for a second and witness life happening. In the short-term, you might consider the fact that you are still breathing, though you may have forgotten to do so. Secondly, look up! The winds are still creating swirling patterns of cloud and light, though you may rarely gaze upon them. Those are short-term examples of life going on. But what are you doing that is so important right now? Why not take a minute to consider the long-term implications of your time on this planet, too…
My work (self-imposed; I do it for fun!) is to meet with a group of young children and begin a new semester of “Write YOUR Story.” That is, my job is to inspire kids with patience and camaraderie (and a bit of toughness, to take criticism in stride) in order that we will be able to write a book together as a group. Then we’ll illustrate it, and finally, when all that is done, each child will write his or her own story. Their boundless energy and excitement may make it hard for them to sit still and listen, at first. Their nerves may make it hard for them to read aloud in smooth rhythms; they may stumble over the words, at first.
But I guarantee that sometime in the next fourteen weeks, an amazing thing will happen and only those who are present will witness it. (But you can make it happen too, wherever you are!) Even the youngest children witness it, every semester. It is creativity: the ch’i in its purest essence, bounding to life again… and once it is expressed, our lives will be changed forever more. We will feel and remember that joy; it will give us wings!
Follow-up thoughts on yesterday’s post:
April 28 marks the two-month mark til our departure for the West Coast! it will be a strangely uncomplicated journey, since our house in South Bend, Indiana is just a few miles south of the entrance onto what we call “The Toll Road,” aka Interstate 80/90, which later on turns into I-90 and leads right into downtown Seattle. When I-90 ends, all we need to do is jog south on I-5 for a few miles, get on the West Seattle Bridge, and minutes later we’ll be at our new house! It’s straight northwest of here, from 41.6764° N, 86.2520° W, to 47.6062° N, 122.3321° W.
“Why so long?” you might ask. “It is only 2,160 miles or 32 hours of driving. One could make the trip in two days.”
“Ah, yes,” I would reply, “but don’t forget Honey Girl! When you have a big heart and travel with a big dog, it is like traveling with a small child. You have to stop for potty breaks and snacks, and turn in early for the evening so we can go on our daily walks. (Not to mention that I plan to continue doing the morning routine every day too, which may delay departures a bit.) What’s the rush, anyway? Maybe Dickinson, North Dakota is worth a few hours to visit!”
So how to get ready!?
I’m starting at the top–with my head. The other details are already underway–the house sale is chugging along toward closure, the moving company quotes will soon be known and discussed, and my work obligations are dwindling down too. The more important preparations involve one’s perception of reality, thus the study of Zen is helpful, as are music and journey myths. For today, I’ll stick with music. (Haven’t yet received my copy of Joseph Campbell! More to come on that.)
MUSIC! I’m compiling a list of “Songs of Freedom” to celebrate this transition, and I plan to sing them all the way there. (We’re taking two cars, fyi ^_^).
So far, I’ve got 30 (I posted some videos of lesser-known favorites) .
Submit your favorites! We’ve got four days to fill, so the more the better.
SONGS OF FREEDOM
The papers and news bring non-stop horrors, worries, and looming dangers on the horizon. The weather’s been terrible! Cold, rainy or snowy, and it’s past Tax Day. Our house remains on the market which means more cleaning and forced departures on demand. Luckily Honey Girl isn’t shedding too bad yet… it could be worse!
And on a lighter note, despite being in “withdrawal” according to the pharmaceutical industry, off two hormones I was prescribed for over ten years and taking only 10 mg. of an anti-depressant I was prescribed for all that time, I feel fine.
Spring really is here now, and I for one am just grateful to be alive.
I’m also happy to see Sarah Vaughan on postage stamps these days. Rich used to play her records for me, years ago on Ravenna Ave in Seattle, and it was very romantic and sophisticated. Here’s one of my favorite Sarah Vaughan songs, “I Love You” (click below, under the lyrics):
I love you
Hums the April breeze
I love you
Echo the hills
I love you
The golden dawn agrees
As once more she sees
It’s spring again
And birds on the wing again
Start to sing again
The old melody
I love you
That’s the song of songs
And it all belongs
To you and me
It’s spring again
And birds on the wing again
Start to sing again
The old melody
I love you
That’s the song of songs
And it all belongs
To you and me
Walking down the hill to the river with Honey Girl tonight, I got that weird feeling of déjà vu; a flashback suddenly took me to another me, another present, walking the dog around these same streets in winter 2015-16.
Like many thoughts that come from nowhere, this one was elicited by a sound. It was the sound of a red-winged blackbird, sitting in the river grasses and singing at twilight. (You can listen to one singing here.)
Back in winter 2015, I was thinking about red-winged blackbirds a lot. I was thinking about black a lot and thinking about death a lot too: my mom had died in early spring that year. When spring came around in 2016, the blackbird’s call took my breath away. I had forgotten all about spring. It made me laugh and cry for sheer happiness to feel alive again, to hope and try again.
The bird belongs to a story I wrote and illustrated to present at a conference on wild children (les enfants sauvages) in Paris in December 2015. The story concluded a post-colonial analysis of the jeune fille sauvage de Champagne who I first studied years ago for a book called The Wild Girl, Natural Man, and the Monster (2002). Instead of seeing her through the prism of European artists, through woodcuts and crude engravings that depicted her in insulting primitive stereotypes, this time I depicted her as a healthy young girl running through these woods in pursuit of bluebells, chipmunks and daisies. I saw her as an Amerindian growing up in this region near Lake Michigan.
Although the archives record the quiet death of an outsider to Paris, in my little story-book, Native Daughter, Marie-Angélique gets the last laugh. She does not die with despair, like Europeans–she lives on! First she becomes a black alley cat, and then a red-winged blackbird. The book ends with the reader hearing that incredibly sweet trill that I just heard tonight.
I was lonely and wistful then, and felt some kind of grudge toward the French who “took” Marie-Angélique from her home, “showed” her for entertainment, and “graced” her with a pension to live–and doomed her to a lonely life. I tucked my emotions neatly into Native Daughter and decorated it with collages cut from books on Indians, guidebooks to Midwestern plants and birds, and commentaries on Parisian society. One copy ultimately ended up in the hands of the conference organizer: a scarily famous French writer… who has since become a dear friend.
Like me, the setting sun was sentimental tonight—the lower horizon was ocher and cinnamon layered with tangerine and blood orange, ending on top in a bit of peachy froth, or that pinky-orange foam on the top of an Orange Julius, against an eggshell blue sky and a half moon. (Not exactly like the hills of Tennessee, seen here, but you get the orangey feeling!)
Speaking of which, Rich served a blood orange and red onion salad with dinner tonight! (the oranges and onions were sliced thin, and had just a trace of extra virgin olive oil and sea salt. It was sweet, tangy, soft and crunchy).
You cannot know how surprised I am to see the words I just wrote. After all those years of striving and judging and aching with academic isolation, angst, and frustration, I feel the weight is finally lifting. I don’t care if my writing seems silly. If you don’t like it, click out!
Life feels good again, like it used to in childhood. Alan Watts’ Wisdom of Insecurity describes the feeling like this:
“When you realize that you live in, indeed that you are this moment now, and no other, that apart from this there is no past and no future, you must relax and taste to the full, whether it be pleasure or pain. At once it becomes obvious why this universe exists … Obviously, it all exists for this moment.
How long have the planets been circling the sun? Are they getting anywhere, and do they go faster and faster to arrive? How often has the spring returned to the earth? Does it come faster and fancier each year, to be sure to be better than last spring, and to hurry on its way to the spring that shall outspring all springs?
The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance. Like music, it is fulfilled in each moment of its course.” (Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity, 115-16)
BTW: Can anybody tell me where does the spring “return” from? And where does winter “go”? Those metaphors are bizarrely misleading! Not to mention that the two seasons overlap. Just go outside if you live in the northern hemisphere and walk around right now: you’ll see what I mean. Winter is clearly here. And so is spring. Change is in the air again… but then, it was all along. As was the present. Which is now the past.
Advice: Sunsets are free entertainment. Walk up to a hill, walk down to a beach, or gaze over the valley to the West. Stand there and watch one, some time this week. Enjoy every moment.